Rhino Horn Myths: Then and Now

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The rhino horn intrigue continues.

For centuries, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners have touted rhino horn as a remedy for a wide array of maladies. These notions about rhino horn originated at a time when comparatively little was known about medical science – or wildlife.

Apparently, the rhino’s horn was a particularly intriguing protuberance.

Unusual beliefs about rhino horn

In the 1500′s, unusual beliefs about rhino horn were not limited to its alleged healing properties.

The following is from Bernard Read’s 1931 translation of Li Shih-chen’s 1597 materia medica Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu, as excerpted from Richard Ellis’ classic book Tiger Bone and Rhino Horn: The Destruction of Wildlife for Traditional Chinese Medicine:

The [horn] is hollow and the animal can breathe and squirt water through it … It is said to shed its horn each year, and bury it in the ground. If carefully replaced by wooden imitations 3 times, the animal will continue to plant its horn in the same place year after year.

However, despite the rhino’s “horn-planting” abilities, it is also noted that rhinoceros horn “from a freshly killed male” is preferred for medicinal use.

The same literature cites rhino horn as a cure for a seemingly endless list of conditions, including fevers, headaches, anxiety, rectal bleeding, smallpox, boils – and devil possession.

Contrary to popular belief, rhino horn is not used as an aphrodisiac in traditional Chinese medicine.

Rhino horn ‘remedies’ readily available

Of course, we now know that rhinos do not spout water from their horns or plant them in the ground.

Unfortunately, the belief that rhino horn has medicinal properties persists.

Rhino horn is still sold as a curative for just about everything imaginable, from treating acne to improving night vision.

Recently, however, a dangerous new element has been added to the rhino horn myth.

TCM websites claim rhino horn is a cancer treatment

Claims made by TCM websites such as buychinaherb.com maintain that rhino horn is a cancer treatment.

… reduce side effects due to chemotherapy and radiation therapy; to improve function of bone marrow in production of blood cells; to increase appetite, keep body weight.

Various cancer: it has been used in the treatment of breast cancer, cervical cancer, bladder cancer, liver cancer, lung cancer, esophagus cancer, stomach cancer, thyroid cancer, colon cancer, leukemia, etc.

In this example, the “medicine” advertised as containing rhino horn is manufactured by Chinese pharmaceutical company Tong Ren Tang:

Another website claiming to be a “Chinese medicine dealing network” located at yaocai8.com offers rhino horn powder from Tianjin Pharmaceutical.

Who benefits from the notion that rhino horn is a cancer treatment or has any other medicinal effects? Certainly not the people who consume rhino horn.

Cultural or financial?

Recently, Treehugger.com argued that rhino conservation efforts are an “attack” on cultures that believe in rhino horn medicine.

Some practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) believe that efforts to end the international trade of rhinoceros horn are, indeed, an affront to their culture.

But is sound medical knowledge being swept aside to appease cultural beliefs, or is the reluctance to acknowledge rhino horn analysis financially motivated?

After all, rhino horn is apparently able to command substantial prices. For example, it was reported earlier this year by Care for the Wild International and Wildlife Extra that rhino horn was indeed fetching outrageous sums of money.

Testing rhino horn

Rhino horn has indeed been thoroughly analyzed to determine its medical efficacy.

At least three studies were conducted by different teams of researchers at separate institutions.

In each case, the results were conclusive: There is no scientific evidence to support claims of rhino horn’s usefulness as a medicine.

According to researchers who conducted the rhino horn studies, consuming rhino horn has the same medicinal effect as chewing fingernails. (Read the entire article at Busting the Rhino Horn Myth with Science.)

Which is more profitable: The continued belief in rhino horn’s curative properties, or the truth about rhino horn?

Chinese pharmaceutical companies and South African rhino horn trade

A state-funded rhino horn research proposal from China published in 2008 advocates the breeding of “endangered medicinal-use animals” to meet the demands of an increasing population “without violating international convention”.

There is little doubt of plans to turn rhino farming – and the use of rhino horn – into a profitable enterprise. (Read the entire article at Chinese Researchers Hope to Turn Rhino Horn Cultivation into Thriving Enterprise While Avoiding CITES Scrutiny.)

And while the conservation community strives to educate rhino horn consumers and dampen the demand, some South African game farmers who have amassed private stockpiles of rhino horn are working in opposition to these efforts, hoping instead to turn rhino horn myths into financial magic.


Image #1 istockphoto.com; #2 & 3 TRAFFIC

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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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. caroline hurry

    Rumours are rife that diplomats are smuggling rhino horn out of South Africa with immunity. Farming rhino could be the answer.

  2. caroline … rhino horn leaving AFRICA, not only South Africa, with diplomats is not news … has been known by most since 1980 ‘s.

    Farming rhino … it will keep poachers doing business, they mix poached horns w/ legal, like our ivory problems.

    Sick … GREED. Who wants to farm rhino?! Farmers with stock piles of horn, they know the horn is only keratin … they should help the people, not sell horns and lies.

  3. Farming wild animals for any reason is not the answer to anything. China is already farming tigers by the thousands, keeping them in horrific conditions for NO reason but greed.
    Wild animals belong IN THE WILD. Nobody needs their body parts – the whole superstition needs to be abolished and the Chinese government needs to crack down on those websites and shops selling the remains of butchered animals.

  4. I thought long and hard about the call to lift the trade ban in rhino horn. In the end I was reminded of Richard Leakey’s comment, ” … ecologists have largely allowed economists to set the terms of the debate over the value of biodiversity. The danger is that, having accepted the invitation to enter the lion’s den, they are likely to end up as the lion’s dinner.”