Rhino Horn: Knowledge vs. Superstition


Rhino horn: What’s the story behind one of the most recognizable features in the animal kingdom?

Myths and superstitions about rhino horn have made rhinos one of the most endangered animals on earth. But what else do we know about rhino horn – this magnificent protuberance that gives the rhino its unmistakably noble profile?

Killing for rhino horn started in Asia, then moved to Africa

There are more species of rhino in Asia – yet the entire population of the three Asian rhino species totals fewer than the population of black rhinos alone. The Asian rhino species were nearly exterminated – for no other reason than their unfortunate proximity to China and other East Asian countries that perpetuate medieval myths about rhino horn.

Many centuries ago the powder made from these horns was sold in East Asiatic pharmacies at a high price. Since the rhinoceros are easy to kill, they have been poached ever since; now, after the almost total extinction of the Asiatic species, those in Africa are poached.

It has never been necessary to kill a rhino in order to remove the horn. And although rhino horn can be removed without harming the rhino, de-horning has always been a controversial means of thwarting poachers.

Even straight after de-horning, the residual chunk of horn is still valuable. The de-horned rhinos get shot anyway, partly from spite, partly to avoid the waste of time chasing the same animal in the future.

There is no medicinal effect of rhino horn on humans

Rhino horn is simply made of keratin. The notion of rhino horn as a “remedy” is nothing more than a superstition; rhino horn has “no effect” on the human body.

The Swiss pharmaceutical firm Hoffmann-La Roche conducted tests and declared at the end of them that rhino horn had no effect on the human body whatsoever, good or bad. Chinese scientists in Hong Kong found that rhino horn did have a cooling effect on fever induced in laboratory rats, but only when used in massive doses. Whatever explanation one might try to find, the final outcome is that rhinos now live on the cusp of extinction: not because they are out of date, but because of a rather frivolous human demand.

Rhino horn is not an aphrodisiac

One of the most persistent myths about rhino horn is that it is used as an aphrodisiac in Chinese medicine. Although rhino horn is “prescribed” for a variety of ailments, a lagging libido is not one of them.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the horn, which is shaved or ground into a powder and dissolved in boiling water, is used to treat fever, rheumatism, gout, and other disorders. According to the 16th century Chinese pharmacist Li Shi Chen, the horn could also cure snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning, and “devil possession.” (However, it is not, as commonly believed, prescribed as an aphrodisiac).

Rhino horn was believed to detect poison

Always on the alert for assassination attempts, centuries of royalty used rhino horn to detect poison. This belief is likely due to a chemical reaction between the horn’s keratin composition and the alkaline properties of many poisons.

The ancient Persians of the 5th century BC thought that vessels carved from the horn could be used to detect poisoned liquids, causing bubbles in the presence of some poisons — a belief that persisted into the 18th and 19th centuries among the royal courts of Europe … Many poisons are strongly alkaline (or basic), and may have reacted chemically with the keratin.

A rhino’s horn is like a “fingerprint”

Keratin composition in the rhino’s horn varies according to the rhino’s diet and location – akin to a fingerprint. Working together, scientists like Raj Amin can help authorities determine which rhino populations are being targeted by poachers.

This fact has allowed ecologist Raj Amin of the Zoological Society of London and his colleagues to take “fingerprints” of horn samples and determine the animal populations they came from, which has helped law enforcement officials target and crack down on poaching.

Rhino horn is not like other horns

Researchers at Ohio University found that rhino horn is not like the horns of other mammals. Most mammal horns have keratin only on the outside, with a bony core in the center. Rhino horn, however, lacks a bony core and instead has a center of mineral deposits.

Horns of other mammals, like cattle, giraffes, antelopes, sheep, goats, gazelles or pronghorn, have a bony core covered by a sheath of keratin.

The study found that rhino horn is actually softer, like hooves and beaks.

… the horns are, in fact, similar in structure to horses’ hooves, turtle beaks, and cockatoo bills.

Rhinos sharpen their horns “like pencils”

The unique shape of the rhino’s horn is thought to be the result of mineral deposits of calcium and melanin at the horn’s center. Rhinos rub the softer outer portion of the horn into a sharp tip, which is strengthened by the calcium. And the melanin apparently protects the horn from sun damage.

The studies also revealed that the centers of the horns have dense mineral deposits of calcium and melanin — a finding that may explain the curve and sharp tip of the horns. The calcium would strengthen the horn while the melanin would protect the core from being degraded by ultraviolet radiation from the sun. As the softer outer portion was worn away over time by the sun and typical rhino activities (bashing horns with other animals, or rubbing it on the ground), the inner core would be sharpened into a point (much like a wooden pencil).

The rhino’s front horn grows faster than the back horn

The curve in the rhino’s horn is further explained by different growth rates in each horn (in the bi-horned rhino species). Researcher Tobin Hieronymus explained via the Ohio University study that this causes the front horn to curve – much like unusually long fingernails.

Because the keratin in the front grows a little bit faster than the keratin in the back, most rhino horns curve backwards, but every now and then you’ll see one that curves forward. Some of them even change curve directions halfway up, all from slight differences in growth rate. Fingernails will curve for the same reason, if you grow them long enough.

Knowledge vs. Superstition

Today, we have unprecedented access to a seemingly endless supply of scientific publications and scholarly research proving once and for all that rhino horn is not medicine.

Yet, in the battle that currently rages over rhino horn, the stakes have never been higher for wild rhinos. These creatures face an uncertain future of possible extinction – all because of myths and superstition about rhino horn.

In the face of scientific evidence, there is no excuse for the illegal killing of rhinos to continue. But pharmaceutical manufacturers in China depend on the killing to replenish supplies of stockpiled rhino horn, which the pharmaceutical industry markets as “medicine” to its citizens.

And with China’s recent designation of Traditional Chinese Medicine as a “strategic industry”, the business of killing rhinos is booming.

It is time for us to stop hiding behind the cloak of “cultural sensitivity” and “political correctness” – we must hold China accountable for its role in pushing rhinos ever closer to the edge of extinction. We can – and will – do this by continuing to disseminate educational and public awareness materials and content that contain the truth: Rhino horn is NOT medicine.

Image: istock.com

Rhishja Cota-Larson

I am the founder of Annamiticus, an educational nonprofit organization which provides news and information about wildlife crime and endangered species. I am the Editor of Rhino Horn is Not Medicine and Project Pangolin, author of the book Murder, Myths & Medicine, a writer for the environmental news blog Planetsave, the host of Behind the Schemes, and Producer for the upcoming documentary The Price. When I'm not blogging about the illegal wildlife trade, I enjoy gardening, reading, designing, and rocking out to live music.

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  1. Patricia Vazquez

    Still think the solution is to permanently excise the horns – as in de-horning cows, goats, etc. IF the ENTIRE pop of animals in a given area are de-horned — the dern poachers wouldn’t be hanging about. Seems that the horn attracting human poachers is less of a worry than how the rhinos will function hornless. Humans are the great exterminators.. anybody remember just how MANY passenger pigeons there were in the USA? Or — the real American Plains Bison, which is now extinct? Now, if you want to work on something else– make Japanese think that whale meat causes erectile dysfunction…

  2. Rhishja Larson

    Hi Patricia –

    Thanks for checking out the article. Yes, humans are behind the massive extinction crisis faced by a record number of species. And the animals you have mentioned are proof of human destruction.

    I hope there are enough people like us, who care enough to keep forging ahead and speaking up for these creatures that cannot speak for themselves.



  3. I think it is stupid of the poachers to do that because if the rhinos become extinct it will be a world disaster d’ont they have a heart for animals

  4. I don’t get why people wont just put these guys in zoos and mate them. I don’t understand why poachers must kill a rhino just to take its horn. Don’t they realize they will have no business if they kill all the rhinos?

    In regards to medicine, the research done on rhino horns is not many to prove it has no medicinal traits due to the fact that the studies only show the horn’s composition and its relation to western medicine. Eastern medicine is in a differently realm compared to western medicine, and is based on theory and thousands of years of clinical use.

    As a student of TCM, I have seen some amazing things happen with acupuncture and herbs in which science cannot explain or would like to disprove with negligible research (ie. treating a western medical condition with the same acupuncture points for every patient)

    Of course, I do not agree in killing rhinos for their horns simply because there’s not that many of them in the world and that there are other alternatives to take a horn without killing

  5. hello friends//

    rihno are beutiful animal that makes us proud because of their honour!!
    so we should try to save them and never even think to harm them

  6. hello friends// i m a student of class 10th of nirmala convent inter college
    rhino are beautiful animal that are given by nature
    so we should never kill them but never think to harm them