A New Prescription for Traditional Vietnamese Medicine: No Rhino Horns

A conservation group is targeting the next generation of practitioners to raise awareness of the devastation caused by prescribing animal parts as medicine.
(Photos: BSIP/Getty Images; Chris George/Getty Images)
Dec 11, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Last year, conservationists cheered when Vietnam’s Ministry of Health and the country’s Traditional Medicine Association affirmed that rhino horns have no medicinal value in treating cancer.

Now, a conservation group is taking the message to universities around Vietnam, encouraging students and professors of traditional medicine to stop using endangered animal parts in treatments.

Wildlife trade monitoring nonprofit TRAFFIC set up workshops at 11 traditional medicine universities in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in November and December, obtaining pledges from 600 of Vietnam’s top traditional medicine students to never use endangered wildlife or plants in their practice or prescriptions.

It’s the first time TRAFFIC has worked with students to raise public awareness about the plight of animals such as the rhinoceros, whose horn is valued for both its perceived medicinal benefits and as a status symbol for Vietnam’s elite.

“We thought it was important to reach students who have not yet established their own practices and who are in the process of learning about the role TM (traditional medicine) can play in society,” said TRAFFIC Vietnam communications officer Jill Capotosto in an email. “They can create a norm of endangered species protection in the TM community that will persist for generations that follow.”

RELATED: Biting Your Fingernails Won’t Cure Cancer—Neither Will Eating Rhino Horn

Vietnamese medicine could play a role in saving rhinos. Poachers killed a record 1,215 rhinos in South Africa last year, and the animal’s horns fetch as much as $133 a gram on the Vietnamese black market, making them more expensive than gold or platinum. That’s despite the fact that a rhino’s horn is made up almost entirely of keratin, the same material as human fingernails—and just as incapable of curing headaches, erectile dysfunction, or cancer.

Capotosto said the group has encountered mixed reactions from the traditional medicine community.

She said many practitioners are eager to change the perception that the country’s traditional medicine market is driving the world’s rhino poaching epidemic. But others remain reluctant to admit rhino horns do not have any medicinal qualities.

“Rhino horn has been an ingredient in traditional medicine for hundreds of years, but right now a lot of organizations are saying ‘rhino horn is not medicine’ and ‘rhino horn doesn't do anything.’ ” Capotosto wrote. “This is not a credible message among TM practitioners.” Still, even among practitioners who believe that rhino horn has medicinal properties, there was agreement that substitute treatments do exist, and that the horn is not a “miracle cure” for illnesses such as cancer.