A number of large-scale, rhino-themed wall paintings have popped up around Saigon in the last month, brightening alleyways and inspiring conversation. But who is behind them and what are they for?
Founded in 2013, ChangeVN works to fight climate change and promote wildlife conservation in Vietnam.
“We partnered with the international NGO WildACT in 2014 to create the Stop Using Rhino Horn Campaign,” says Nhi, programme manager for ChangeVN. “The whole thing is aimed at raising awareness because we want to reduce local demand for this product.”
According to WildACT, at the current rate of poaching across South Africa and Asia, the rhinoceros could be extinct by 2022. As one of the globe’s top consumers of rhino horn, Vietnam drove their own species, the Javan rhino, into extinction seven years ago.
“To [consumers], it is a cure for disease and a symbol of wealth and power,” says Nhi. “That caused the extinction of rhinos here, and now Vietnamese consumers are sourcing the horns overseas.”
In a bid to connect with Vietnamese society about the rhino horn, ChangeVN has launched a range of creative communication efforts both offline and online. “We want to raise awareness and educate people about the truth,” says Nhi. “We target the business sector because we believe that they are the main consumers.”
The ChangeVN team also run activities in schools and pagodas. “We try to influence the families and friends of business people too,” says Nhi. “Just to make them aware of the issue and create some kind of social pressure to take action.”
But many of their widest-reaching efforts are online. “We want to engage the online community,” says Nhi. “We create a lot of 30-second public service announcement clips about the cause with top CEOs and both international and local celebrities, and we run campaigns to educate people about what rhino horns really are.”
In one such campaign, Nail Biter, viewers were asked to bite their nails to demonstrate how similar rhino horn is to the keratin we have on our fingertips.
Saigon’s new rhino wall paintings make up one part of the ongoing Stop Using Rhino Horns project. It was launched in February this year and was closed at the end of March.
“We had the idea about a year ago,” says Nhi. “But we had to go around and ask a lot of people until we reached someone who could make the decision — at ChangeVN we deal with tricky topics so we have to be creative.”
Eventually, it was a matter of compromise. “There were plans to renovate some areas in District 1 and give them a new look,” says Nhi. “We offered to paint our message and do some beautiful artwork there, and they agreed.”
Florian Nguyen and SubyOne are two of a total of 11 artists that worked on the project. “ChangeVN contacted me and I found their concept interesting,” says Florian. “I worked with five other artists on a big wall next to Nguyen Van Cu Bridge [in HCMC’s District 4]. It took us two full days to complete, working in the sun from 9am to about 7 or 8pm.”
Mural graffiti artist SubyOne had been working with ChangeVN since they launched the Stop Using Rhino Horn campaign back in 2014.
“The wall painting was the third project I had done with them,” he says. “I remember the opening event. We invited all the Vietnamese stars and some international ones too, and I drew a massive rhino for them to sign their names along the lines. This event was about reaching the celebrities. What we did after was about reaching the people.”
To Florian, connecting with people was one of the highlights of the graffiti project. “While we were painting, people from the neighbourhood came and asked us what we were doing,” he says. “Sometimes there was a bunch of like 20 people watching, bringing us tea, so yeah it was a really cool interaction with people. It was really nice.”
Many of the people who came to observe the artists already knew about the rhino horn issue. “I met a girl and started explaining to her about the rhino, but she said she knew already and thought it was a shame,” says SubyOne. “Actually, a lot of people know about it!”
As long as the small minority continue to consume rhino horn the issue will still be there, but while change might be slow, Vietnam is beginning to understand why it needs to happen.
Photos by Mike Palumbo