Rhino Horn and ‘The Red Flags of Quackery’


Do any of these ‘red flags’ look familiar?

It seems that rhino horn’s alleged curative properties meet the criteria for at least six of the sixteen “Red Flags of Quackery” as compiled by Sci-ence: A Skeptical Comic and Blog.

Let’s take a look at rhino horn and this entertaining guide to quackery identification.

Red flag #1: “Helps your body heal itself or remove toxins. In other words, it doesn’t do anything because your body does it just fine on its own. Also see: boosts the immune system and balances so-and-so.”

  • “Rhinoceros horn has been used in Chinese medicine for over two millenia to dispel heat, relieve convulsions, and counteract toxins.” 1
  • “Continuous administration lightens the body and makes one very robust.”2

Red flag #2: “Ancient wisdom. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s right. The belief that demons are the cause of disease has been around longer than germ theory, but that does not make it correct (magical thinking).”

  • “To cure devil possession and keep away all evil spirits and miasmas.”3 (Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines miasma as “a vaporous exhalation formerly believed to cause disease”.)
  • “To remove hallucinations and bewitching nightmares.”4

Red flag #3: “Miracle cure-all. See also: too good to be true and holistic.”

  • “Continuous administration lightens the body and makes one very robust. For typhoid, headache, and feverish colds. For carbuncles and boils full of pus. To expel fear and anxiety, to calm the liver and clear the vision. It is a sedative to the viscera, a tonic, antipyretic. It dissolves phlegm. For infantile convulsions and dysentery. Ashed and taken with water to treat violent vomiting, food poisoning, and overdose of poisonous drugs. For arthritis, melancholia, loss of the voice.” 5
  • “It has the following effect: detoxication and anti-cancer, eliminating pathogenic heat from the blood, removing eczema.” 6

Red flag #4: “Natural. Also see: organic. Not everything that is natural is healthy. Arsenic and sharks are natural, too.”

  • “Rhino horn is one of the most important Chinese herbal medicines in the traditional Chinese medicine field.” 7
  • “Rhino horn has the following characteristics: natural, special, good effect and no side effect.” 8

Red flag #5: “Toxins. Imaginary substances invoked to sell a product. The liver removes any real toxins from your body just fine.”

  • “Rhinoceros horn has been used in Chinese medicine for over two millenia to dispel heat, relieve convulsions, and counteract toxins.” 9

Red flag #6: “Western medicine. There is no ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ medicine. There’s ‘medicine’ and then there’s ‘stuff that has not been proven to work’.”

  • “[Traditional Chinese medicine] practice draws on metaphysical rather than scientific principles and often slips under the radar of clinical tests and conventional scientific validation, leaving most remedies without any scientific proof of their effectiveness or even safety.” 10

Be sure to visit Sci-ence: A Skeptical Comic and Blog to see “The Red Flags of Quackery” poster!

(And seriously, to learn more, check out Busting the Rhino Horn Medicine Myth with Science.)


1, 9. But, P.B., Lung, L. and Tam. Y. Ethnopharmacology of Rhinoceros Horn. I: Antipyretic Effects of Rhinoceros Horns and Other Animal Horns. 1990. Department of Biology and Chinese Medicinal Material Research Centre, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

2,3,4,5. Ellis, Richard. Tiger Bone & Rhino Horn: The Destruction of Wildlife for Traditional Chinese Medicine. 2005. Island Press. Washington, D.C.

6,7,8. See Revealed: China’s ‘Rhino Horn Cancer Treatment Scheme

10. Nuwer, R. “From Beijing to New York: The dark side of traditional Chinese medicine.” Scienceline. 29 June 2011.

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. Glad you liked it! Along a similar line, earlier I had posted a series of comics debunking traditional chinese medicine–one of which focused on the poaching and subsequent extinction of the Western African Black Rhino: http://sci-ence.org/the-ghosts-of-woo-part-three/

  2. Hi Maki,

    Brilliant! Thanks for the link :)