Illegal trade seizures: Rhino horn

Mapping the crimes

To mark UN World Environment Day on June 5, and as the latest instalment in a series of visualisations of illegal wildlife trade, EIA has produced an interactive map of the illegal trade in rhino horn.

Of the world’s five rhino species, three (black, Sumatran and Javan) are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, while the white rhino is listed as Near Threatened. The greater one-horned rhino of India and Nepal is listed as Vulnerable but, with a fragmented population of approximately 3,300, they are at considerable risk.

Rhinos are primarily threatened by poaching for their horns, driven by demand in Vietnam and China. The past decade has seen a dramatic escalation of rhino poaching: in South Africa, home to about 90 per cent of the world’s white rhinos, poaching rose from 13 animals in 2007 to 1,215 in 2014, a 9,000 per cent increase. Despite an apparent levelling off of poaching rates in South Africa, continental totals have continued to grow, with at least 1,338 rhinos killed throughout Africa in 2015 as crime syndicates branch out from areas of improved enforcement to hit easier targets.

Rhinos in Asia are also seriously threatened by poaching: 141 greater one-horned rhinos were poached in India in 2009-14, and with fewer than 100 Sumatran and about 60 Javan rhinos surviving in Indonesia, these species are on the brink of extinction. Rhino horn trafficking is undertaken by transnational organised crime networks, many of which are involved in other large-scale criminal activities.

The interactive map below provides a glimpse into the illegal rhino horn trade over the past decade. The map includes incidents of seizures and thefts of rhino horn, along with convictions relating to the rhino horn trade, in turn demonstrating the inadequate rate of convictions. This map does not include cases of rhino poaching or convictions relating solely to poaching or poaching attempts. Data has been collected from publicly available information, including government reports, enforcement agency press releases and non-governmental and academic papers, along with news media in several languages, but is not an exhaustive data set and likely represents only a fraction of actual activity between 2006-16.


(c) Environmental Investigation Agency

Female rhino and young (c) EIA

The yellow markers represent a total of 357 rhino horn seizures, involving approximately 2,947 kg of rhino horn, equivalent to about 1,060 individual horns. Where weight of rhino horn seized has not been reported (i.e. only a specific number of horns have been reported), we have calculated the weight of the seizure by using an average weight of 2.78kg per horn, except where the location of the seizure strongly suggests the horn is from the greater one-horned rhino, where a figure of 0.96 kg is used.

The green markers represent thefts of rhino horn – including thefts from government stockpiles, private homes and museums – showing the increase in rhino horn thefts in areas such as the EU. This shows the theft of at least 267 rhino horns, most of which were likely trafficked into the black market. In particular, a spate of thefts in Europe in 2010-12 has been linked to organised criminal networks.

The blue markers, 96 cases in total, represent convictions relating to selling or purchasing rhino horn, or individuals being found in possession of horn. The map does not include convictions relating to poaching unless a seizure of rhino horn also took place. Where a conviction related to a mapped seizure or theft has occurred, a blue marker appears in the centre of the original incident. While this data set is not exhaustive, it is nonetheless striking to note how few seizures have been openly reported as resulting in convictions, particularly in Kenya, India and Vietnam, and EIA encourages governments to publish the outcome of prosecutions.

Demand for rhino horn comes primarily from Vietnam and China, where it is ground up for use as a hangover cure, party drug or in traditional medicine (despite it having no medicinal value), is used as a material for carving cups and trinkets or is displayed whole as a status symbol.

The data presented on the map indicates that a minimum of 528kg of rhino horn was seized in China between 2006 and May 2016 (18 per cent of the total), while at least 442kg was seized in Vietnam (15 per cent of total). Moreover, EIA’s trade data reveals that Chinese and Vietnamese nationals have been heavily involved in the rhino horn trade globally. Chinese nationals have been arrested in possession of rhino horn across Africa and Europe, and have been convicted in relation to busts of major trading rings in the USA and Namibia, among others. Vietnamese nationals have been arrested in various African rhino range states, with a particular concentration in Johannesburg, as well as transit and destination countries such as Qatar, the Czech Republic, Thailand, Singapore and China. Cases which demonstrate Chinese or Vietnamese involvement are circled in red and black respectively; involvement being where either the incident occurred within the country or the source explicitly states that a national of that country was arrested, convicted or found in possession of rhino horn. Overall, EIA’s records document the seizure of 887kg of rhino horn that was explicitly linked to Vietnam (30 per cent of total seizures) and 695kg that was explicitly linked to China (24 per cent of total).

Cases of rhino horn seizures can also be viewed as a time-lapse animation below. Each red dot represents a single seizure, while the month in which the seizure occurred is shown on the moving bar to the bottom left. This animation clearly shows the emergence first of China and soon after of Vietnam as centres of rhino horn seizures, along with a major concentration in South Africa, particularly around Johannesburg and Kruger National Park. The animation also illustrates the more recent spread of seizures into Namibia and other African countries.



There is an urgent need to end all demand for rhino horn in Vietnam, China and other countries and this goal can be achieved only if the laws and policies that clearly prohibit all trade in rhino horn are effectively enforced.

The question of demand for rhino horn will be discussed at CITES CoP17 (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) in September. In April, Swaziland submitted a proposal to CITES which, if successful, would allow it to sell its stockpile of rhino horn to unspecified buyers “in the Far East”. EIA calls on all CITES Parties to strongly reject this proposal at the September conference.

The data presented here indicates the extent of the existing illegal trade; any parallel legal markets would further stimulate demand, undermine enforcement and enable laundering of poached specimens onto legal markets. Given the critical state of rhino conservation today, opening legal trade is a risk that the global community cannot afford to take.

A list of incidents represented in the map along with additional information is available here. EIA welcomes referenced information to update the map and the dataset is available for research and analysis on request from charlottedavies(at)



* Masthead image of black rhinoceros in Kenya by Elliott Neep /