While in Vietnam working to reduce the illegal trade in rhinoceros horns, Ashland resident Pepper Trail helped hand out pieces of a horn during training workshops.

While in Vietnam working to reduce the illegal trade in rhinoceros horns, Ashland resident Pepper Trail helped hand out pieces of a horn during training workshops.

"When we passed it around, some of the guys would surreptitiously take off a bristle and eat it," Trail said. "And these were the conservation guys working with us.

"I don't know if they thought it was doing them any good or they were just curious," he added.

But it illustrated the long-held belief within the Vietnamese culture that the massive horns have medicinal properties, he said.

Trail, 59, returned Aug. 11 after spending two months in Vietnam, mainly in Hanoi, helping to combat illegal wildlife trade. He is the senior forensic scientist in ornithology at the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, the nation's top wildlife forensics facility.

While in Vietnam, he worked as an Embassy Science Fellow representing the U.S. Department of State, which the Vietnam government had asked for assistance.

Vietnam is a member of the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species, which seeks to stop the illegal trafficking of wildlife.

With rhino horns going for more than $25,000 a pound on the black market, it's a tall order to prevent the species from being killed off by poachers, Trail said.

"As long as there are desperately poor people in Africa and there is a lot of money to be made, it is very difficult to control the illegal trade," he said. "So reducing demand is critical.

"But the demand is not in Africa," he added. "It is mostly in Asia. The use of rhino horn as a medicinal product has a long cultural history in Vietnam and China."

President Barack Obama, during his recent visit to Africa, stressed the need to reduce the illegal killing of rhinos, Trail said.

"The high-profile issue that CITES has been dealing with internationally is the illegal trade in rhino horns," Trail said. "Over the last five or six years, a trade has developed between South Africa and Vietnam. South Africa allows some trophy hunting of white rhinos, charging a fortune as part of a money-making proposition."

Much of the hunting is on private reserves that are basically rhino ranches, he said.

"But it is strictly forbidden to commercialize the horn," he said. "You are allowed to hunt one and have a trophy for your own wall, but you are not allowed to use it for trade."

In the 1980s and '90s, there was a lot of rhino poaching driven by the belief the horn was an aphrodisiac, he said. That also was the period when rhino horns were in high demand in Yemen, where they were carved into ceremonial dagger handles, he added.

When international pressure was applied at that time, the demand began to die off and rhino populations started rebounding, he said.

"But recently there has been a huge resurgence in rhino poaching," he said, again citing its consumption as medicine. "They are looking at 1,000 rhinos being illegally killed this year alone."

Rhino horn also has become a status symbol, he said, noting some even purchase it as others would buy gold as a hedge against bad economic times.

After Vietnam gained an unwanted reputation as a major player in the illegal rhino horn trade, its government began working to do something about the situation, resulting in Trail spending two months working with the Vietnamese government.

"I am an ornithologist but here in morphology, a section I work on in the lab here, we all work together and share our knowledge," he said. "So I was quite familiar with the issue before I got there.

"Rhino horn is basically compressed hair, the same as in your fingernails," he explained. "The horn itself sits on a bone. A lot of people think that if you took the skull of a rhino the horn would be attached. But it actually sits on the bone, kind of like your fingernail on the end of your finger."

He is the first one from the Ashland lab to serve as an Embassy Science Fellow, although there have been several from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the facility.

"I was pleasantly surprised the Vietnamese government is committed to doing a better job," he said. "But the problems they face over there (are) a larger version of what we have in the states: not enough money, not enough staff."

Compounding that is a lack of clout the various departments there have in enforcing regulations that would stop the illegal trade, he said.

"The enforcement spectrum is quite fragmented there," he said. "There is a wide variety of different groups, all with their own bureaucratic structures, that are all in some way involved with wildlife trade issues."

In other words, there is no Fish and Wildlife Service to coordinate the effort.

There once were rhinos in Vietnam, a subspecies of the Java rhino, but the last known one was illegally killed in 2010 in a national park there, he said.

A rhino is not killed because of its meat, he stressed.

"Even in Africa, they cut off the horn and leave the carcass," he said.

The belief that consuming a portion of the horn has great medicinal value goes back centuries, he said.

"There was an ad campaign in Vietnam in which they had a picture of a rhino but instead of a horn they had a foot with the toes sticking up," he said. "The point was it was the same material as your toenails."

But it didn't seem to have much sway in a Vietnamese focus group that was shown the illustration, he said.

"The Vietnamese said the toes look gross and funny, but the animal still looks so big and strong that it undercuts the message," he said. "They said, 'We still see it as a source of power.' "

The U.S. is working with a British group called TRACE in establishing a wildlife forensics lab in Vietnam, Trail said, noting that similar facilities already have been established in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

"The hope is within a year the Vietnamese will be up and running," he said. "We have a big emphasis in spreading the best practices in wildlife forensic science to all parts of the world, including southeast Asia."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or pfattig@mailtribune.com.