The world’s rhino population is in stark decline: in the last forty years it has plummeted by 95 per cent. Yet, in Ho Chi Minh City there’s a fightback brewing with street art becoming a powerful tool in raising awareness of the plight of rhinos. Freya Godfrey reports from the city’s colourful streets.
In a field of flowers, a little girl in a pink dress with a floral garland in her hair tends to a rhino. Its hide is covered in swirling patterns: wave-like arches on its back legs, concentric circles of lotus petals, dots and triangle shapes spreading from its rump, fish scales decorating its head. And, at the end of its nose, a pair of proud, rose-coloured horns protrude triumphantly.
I’m standing on a quiet residential street in Ho Chi Minh City looking at a piece of graffiti.
To the left, #savetherhino and #cuutegiac (or Cứu Tê Giác) are spray-painted. This is one of seventeen pieces of street art scattered around the Vietnamese capital that were commissioned by to promote awareness of the issues facing the rhino population.
The history of the rhino in Vietnam is a sad one – the last surviving Javan rhino was killed for its horn by poachers in 2010. But why, in a country without rhinos, is the Save the Rhino campaign being given such prominence?
Well, Vietnam remains one of the largest buyers of rhino horn – where it is particularly popular with the country’s growing middle class – as well as being a route through which the illegal product can make its way to China.
In the last forty years, it’s thought that the world’s rhino population has decreased by 95 per cent, leaving just 25,000 rhinos in the wild. Illegal poaching in Africa is largely funded by the Asian market and, in just ten years, it’s thought that they could become extinct.
Having heard these worrying statistics, I ask my AirBnB host, James, why rhino horn is bought in Vietnam. “People believe it will make their children strong” he says. “Rich people grind it up and put it in their kids’ soup.” In Vietnam the traditional – and scientifically unfounded – belief that rhino horn harbours medicinal qualities prevails.
I wonder if it’s easy to buy. “It’s like drugs,” says James. “You just have to know the right person.”
And that’s where the graffiti campaign comes in. In January 2017, artists from around the world painted Ho Chi Minh City’s streets with murals promoting the Save the Rhino message.
The paintings vary widely in style. In some, the message is subtle – one wall depicts a rhino alone in the wild looking down into the waterhole. Reflected back are five more rhinos, a reminder of the species’ devastation.
Others are more provocative: on the corner of Vo Van Kiet street, a single rhino is delicately shaded in black paint, its wizened, wrinkled, saddened face crashing to the ground, front horn shattering into pieces. Others still spell the message out, quite literally: on Le Loi Street, near the Little Saigon Boutique Hotel, an orange-tinted rhino is painted with the words: “Không có người mua, không cón kẻ giết”, or “No more buyer, no more poacher”.
And if there’s one thing that’s consistent throughout the artworks, it’s the way the horn really strikes you, swooping up from the rhino’s head, adding a graceful arc to its bulky, heavy body.
In Communist Vietnam, artistic expression is strictly censored, and art exhibitions require prior approval. As a result, it’s interesting that the city has chosen the graffiti subculture as the best medium to spread the Save the Rhino message. Change has been running anti-rhino events for a while, but it’s indicative of the widespread nature of the issue, and the need to reach the wider population, that a step has been taken to, however subtly, alter the very landscape of the city.
However, it’s hard to tell how much of an impact the graffiti has made. I ask interior designer Dung, the owner of the guesthouse I stay in for my last two nights in the city, whether she can help me find some of the murals. She looks bemused and can’t remember seeing any of them, but the next morning she tells me that she’s seen an example on her motorbike ride to work, under Bui Huu Nghia bridge which she speeds beneath each day. Before now, she hadn’t really noticed it.
I have a similar experience later that afternoon, when I head out to tick the last remaining murals off my list. Near Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, closely searching the map I’ve plotted out, an old lady comes out of the dressmakers I’ve paused in front of to ask if I’d like any help. I tell her I’m searching for graffiti near her shop and show her an image on my phone. She shakes her head and calls her daughter out, who tells me she remembers the graffiti campaign but that she thinks the mural was taken down earlier in the year. I thank them and continue my search. Just two streets away I find the artwork I was looking for – it’s one of the most arresting so far.
Outside Café Giải Khát, a side-street wall is painted with vibrant greens, purples and blues that swirl into leafy jungle shapes. A powerful rhino crashes through the middle, its eye bulging angrily. And, at the end, a clear cut has been made through its horn, the pointed end flying away.
I’m taken aback by the art but the locals lean indifferently against the painted wall, nonchalantly drinking the sweet coffee for which Vietnam is famed.
It strikes me that a much stronger effort may be needed to change attitudes in Vietnam. Graffiti is an excellent way to reach the masses, to spread a message far and wide. However, the problem is systemic and the users of rhino horn are, unfortunately, often those with the power and influence.
Image credits top to bottom (left–right): Endangered white rhino © Jonathan Pledger/Shutterstock; Street scene in Ho Chi Minh City © Luciano Mortula – LGM/Shutterstock; Female rhino and her calf © Jonathan Pledger/Shutterstock; Traditional medicine © maxontravel/Shutterstock; Rhino horn © Ratchat/Shutterstock; Female rhino and her calf walking away © Johan Swanepoel/Shutterstock; Baby white rhino calf © Jonathan Pledger/Shutterstock; Rhinos © kamira777/Shutterstock; Side street in Ho Chi Minh City © tache/Shutterstock; Street fruit stall in Ho Chi Minh City © tache/Shutterstock.