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Point-less rhinos = pointless concoction

The relentless demand for rhino horn in traditional medicine, particularly traditional Chinese medicine, is threatening all rhino species with extinction. The current demand is proving completely unsustainable for the remaining rhino populations.

Poached Rhino. credit: Ol Pejeta Conservancy Black rhino: a tragic victim of poaching.
© Ol Pejeta Conservancy

There is a long history of rhinos being killed for their horns. Reasons include hunting for a trophy and the use of rhino horn for carvings (particularly dagger handles), but the most threatening demand by far is for use in medicine. Rhino horn has been an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. It is thought that much of this belief stemmed from the mythical unicorn and the wonderful powers this creature was said to possess. The unicorn of course, never existed, but the horn of the unicorn was thought centuries ago to have magical powers, curing fever and devil possession.

There is the same belief that rhino horn can treat ailments such as rheumatism, gout, fever and others such as typhoid, snake bites, vomiting and devil possession. There is also a new belief, mostly in Vietnam, that rhino horn can even cure cancer. To administer the rhino horn it is ground into a powder and dissolved in hot water before being swallowed.

A cure-all medicine simply does not exist. Rhino horn has been thoroughly tested as a medicine and has been found to have zero medical properties. One study that did find an effect, administered rhino horn in massive quantities not physically possible to give as a ‘medicine’. The effect seen was marginal and equivalent to alternatives also tested. It could be argued that such a high dose of any benign substance would have had the same effect. It is well known that rhino horn consists mostly of a protein called keratin, the same as all hooves, horns, hair and nails, including human nails.

The really interesting part of all this is that keratin is largely un-digestible, it passes straight through the gut with no effect. Also scientific studies have found cancerous tumours with higher levels of keratin in their structure to actually be more aggressive and invasive. Those with highly keratinised tumours have a poorer prognosis.

Rhinos are being killed for no good reason and it is equally devastating that people suffering from illnesses are wasting their time and money on trying rhino horn. Desperate people looking to survive serious illness such as cancer are being completely duped into trying a pointless concoction.

The only people benefitting from rhino horn are those cruel enough to be profiting from its illegal trade. There is no care that rhino horn is ineffective as a medicine and that its availability gives people false hope when they should be seeking effective treatment or comfort.

The good news is that for those who maintain the belief that rhino horn could be medicinal, most are happy to accept an alternative. Buffalo horn is one alternative which has substituted rhino horn as is believed to do the same thing.

The Ministry of health of the Peoples Republic of China removed rhino horn from the Chinese medicine pharmacopeia in 1993, with any trade and use remaining illegal today. The register of Chinese Herbal Medicine in the UK has also condemned the illegal trade in endangered species and its members are prohibited from using any endangered species.

The current issue with rhinos is truly senseless: rhino horn is in-effective as a medicine, there are effective alternatives found in more modern Chinese medicine and in western medicine. Finally, for those who do choose to follow traditional medicine routes there are accepted and sustainable alternatives such as keratin from a different source.

Rhino horn medicine is an old myth which needs leaving in the past. Let us keep rhinos alive for the future.