We smelt it before we saw it. It took us straight back to the bush of KwaZulu-Natal. The sharp, acrid smell of burnt hair that mangers to linger in the tissue at the back of the throat. It must be the heat of the chainsaw when it cuts through that creates that bitter burnt smell. But along with the smells of fresh morning grass, this powerful smell flashes brightly of filming rhino dehornings.
And after weeks of breathing cloying chemical air filled with pollutants from millions of motorbike engines, this was a sudden sharp reminder of home and why we were here.
In the weeks and months leading up to our trip to Asia, we watched every documentary, every piece of video we could find of Vietnamese rhino horn use. But it all looked re-enacted and we wanted to watch real rhino horn users. We couldn’t find it. Sure, there were plenty of people who spoke about someone they knew who ground a piece of rhino horn in a specially made grinding bowl to cure hangovers or cancer or reduce fever in children, but that was the extent of it… someone who knew someone.
When we were on the ground in Vietnam, we found out why. Everyone knows that using rhino horn is illegal and the demand reduction campaigns have done a good job in making those users, or people who know users, steer clear of westerners who disapprove.
From day one in Hanoi, we met with whoever would meet with us… from American diplomats to animal rights activists to aid workers to traditional doctors to oncologists to government officials… whoever said yes to meeting with us, we met with them. We spent many hours on what seemed a fruitless chase, but we were hoping for that “someone who knew someone” to get us started. And eventually, yes… someone knew someone who really knew a rhino horn user and possibly, quite possibly, we could meet with the “someone”. Not the user, the first someone. This person would then vet us before meeting with the second someone… who really knew a user.
Trips in taxis across the length of the city, to high-rise buildings and office blocks, and we had our meeting approved with the second someone. Again across the city, but this time we had to provide a list of questions that would be sent to the user’s family for approval. And under no circumstance were we allowed to deviate from the questions or ask to see the product. We could only talk to the user about using it. Not exactly what we were looking for, but we soon realised how harsh we had been on investigative news programmes we had seen before starting out on this.
We were told to wait for a phone call. A day went by, another one, and finally on the third day just before sunset the phone call came in and we were told where to meet. Instructions were sent by sms to our translator. Within seconds we were in yet another taxi flitting across the city to the user destination. It’s surprising, there was no chaos of cameras being checked frantically in the back seat, or audio equipment haphazardly assembled… we were calm. We had been waiting for this for a long time. We pulled up outside the apartment building and walked towards the entrance… slowly and gingerly moving towards it. Surreal to be here at last… only the annoying never-ending mosquito-like buzzing from the motorbikes zipping dangerously close told us we were not in slow-motion.
The door opens, a young government official lets us in and we take our shoes off at the entrance. The whole family comes down the hall, greeting us and bringing through tea to sit in the lounge. We don’t look at each other… wondering when, if ever, we bring up the reason why we are here and looking at each of the family members trying to figure out who exactly is the user? They all know why we are here, but just how patient can we be…
Watch STROOP when it is released later in the year to see how the interview unfolds…
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