Why Fictional Demons and Cancer Are Fueling the Illegal Trade in Rhino Horns

For centuries, rhino horn has been used as a traditional medicine in many Asian countries.

A rhino that was dehorned by a veterinary surgeon and rangers to prevent poaching is seen with its calf at the Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga, South African, in this September 16, 2011 image. (Photo: Ilya Kachaev/Reuters)

wrote the bestseller Soldier Dogs and was staff writer at USA Today and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Imagine walking around with a couple of objects more valuable than gold sticking out of your face—objects people want to kill you for. It wouldn’t be a good way to live to a ripe old age.

Welcome to the world of today’s rhinos. Rhino horns fetch $65,000 a kilogram in some areas. Grinding the horns into powder, adding liquid, and ingesting it is both an ancient custom and the new rage among the elite in certain parts of the world.

Poachers are relentless in their pursuit of these endangered animals. Last year a record 633 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone in pursuit of their horns. (Horn trivia: African and Sumatran rhinos have two horns; Indian and Javan rhinos have only one.)

I bet if rhinos could unscrew their horns and hide them when they don’t need them, they would.

Last week I wrote about a new law that aims to slow the poaching, and also about the general state of affairs for rhinos (spoiler alert: it ain’t good). Today, I’m going to take a more pointed look at the horns themselves—the purported qualities, and the reality of these claims.

For centuries, rhino horn has been used as a traditional medicine of many Asian countries for a crazy wide variety of ailments. Here’s a partial list of what it’s been alleged to effectively treat: headaches, hangovers, fever, vomiting, cancer, food poisoning, rheumatism, gout, snakebites, typhoid, hallucinations, and devil possession (no, really).

Science has dispelled all but one of these claims. There’s some evidence that, administered in large doses, it has a slight fever-lowering effect. But aspirin is a lot cheaper and reportedly far more effective.

Even with all these uses, the situation wasn’t so awful for the rhino populations for centuries. But since about 2005, the popularity of rhino horn “has increased massively,” Richard Thomas, of the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, tells TakePart.

Why the relatively recent surge in demand? Thomas says it’s twofold: Rhino horn’s reputation as a cancer cure is rampant in some areas. And rhino horn has become something of a delicacy among Vietnam’s affluent and status conscious.

“Vietnam is the primary destination for rhino horn, where it is in sky-high demand,” says Thomas.

Special rhino horn grinding bowls are widely available for sale on the streets of major cities in Vietnam. These are ceramic bowls with a serrated bottom; a little water is added and the horn ground against the bottom to create a milky fluid. It can be drunk like that or added to wine or other beverages.

Wealthy believers are mixing rhino horn into their drinks with the idea that they’re imbibing an overall health tonic, a hangover cure, or an aphrodisiac. Lucky ones may convince themselves they receive all three purported benefits. The truth, says Thomas, is that it’s all in the head.

People also give gifts of rhino horn to increase their status with those in important positions. “There is a strong, socially bonding element to such consumption which typically unfolds at group functions, including so-called ‘rhino wine associations’ in which other Asian expatriate business elites participate,” says a report put out by TRAFFIC.

What if the consumers of rhino horn found out they were paying these outrageous prices and having these fancy functions for nothing more than glorified fingernails? Yes, rhino horns are pretty much just plain old keratin—the stuff of fingernails, turtle beaks, and horse hoofs.

Would a campaign comparing the horns to their less-desirable cousins help? I can envision an ad with someone grinding a bowlful of fingernails, and likening it to the benefits of consuming rhino horn. Would it help? Would prohibitive fines for users do the trick? Can anything help at this point?

It’s illegal as can be right now, but that hasn’t stopped the trade. As demand for rhino horn increases, along with the price, the price paid by rhino populations may be the ultimate one. Rhinos are on the brink of the point of no return.

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