The rhino horn rush: stigma behind a tradition

The recent upsurge in illegal Rhino poaching across Southern Africa has led to an international remonstration against Rhino Horn used in so called traditional healing practices. People all over are joining in support against this onslaught which caused the near doubling of annual Rhino killings.

In less than only 40 years, the illegal Rhino horn trade has been responsible for eradicating 90 percent of the world’s total Rhino population, leaving the remaining five species in a seemingly losing battle against extinction.

Despite constant efforts to curb their abolition from the face of the Earth, the rise in African Rhino horn demands amongst traders in Vietnam, Yemen and China’s medicine markets are adding fuel to the problem.

Wildlife park managers are considering all options; from cutting off the tips of horns, to injecting it with lethal cyanide that will kill people when they consume it.

The Rhino horn trade has now grown into a money-spinning “business”. Chief Executive of South African National Parks, Dr David Mabunda even compared the sophistication, violence, precision and capital behind illegal brutal Rhino killings with organised crime.

Rhino horn poachers have a network of corrupt contacts allowing them easy-access to high-end equipment such as: tranquilizing drugs, AK-47 assault rifles, bolt-action rifles, axes, high-tech night vision gear, heat sensors, special vehicles and small aircraft like Robinson R44 helicopters.

Traffickers enjoy exceptionally rewarding pay-offs, which is no wonder, as Rhino horn prices on the black market exceed that of gold. Hefty profits have become a lure for poaching syndicates who in turn corrupt industry insiders.

Private veterinarians, trophy hunt operators, park rangers and managers are tempted into liaison with syndicates. To ensure the “business” remains lucrative, the uses and medicinal value of Rhino horn are promoted in trading countries under the auspices of traffickers, instilling false beliefs and exploiting traditions for their own gain.

Poachers and traffickers also operate in a number of other devious ways. Recent incidents saw traffickers approach taxidermists. They pose as museum representatives or African trophy collectors, claiming to buy Rhino trophies for private collections, instead re-sell the horn on the black market.

The trade has grown to the point that China has now introduced, “artificial propagation” for Rhino horn harvesting. This takes place on so-called “Rhino farms” where endangered Rhinos are bred in captivity, with the purpose to research and successfully extract horn from the live animals. One such farm is reportedly Sanya City Center for Artificial Propagation of the Rhinoceros, in China’s Hainan Province.

Why is Rhino horn in such great demand?

Yemen, Middle East: Rhino horn is very sacred and as much part of Yemen’s religious culture today as it was centuries ago. It is a desired commodity amongst young Muslim men.

At the age of 12, Yemen boys are presented with a curved dagger called Jambiya, a symbol of a boy’s manhood and devotion to his religion.

The dagger’s handle is made from Rhino horn covered with jewels. Despite the 1982 import ban against Rhino horn it still finds its way into Yemen.

China and South East Asia: Rhino horn has a tragic history in the Chinese culture, dating as far back as the 7th century AD. It was made into almost anything, from buttons and hair pins to ceremonial cups. Drinking from these cups was believed to bring good fortune.

The most well-known use for Rhino horn is in traditional Chinese Medicine. It is usually ground and boiled or made into a paste, then used as a treatment for gout, rheumatism, fever, hallucinations, vomiting, over dosage of poisonous drugs, snake bite and even devil possession.

Contrary to popular notion, it is not so often prescribed as an aphrodisiac or cure for impotency. India, South Korea and Malaysia all share similar beliefs in its medicinal power.

Korea: There are 5 popular oriental medicines made in Korea containing Rhino horn extracts as a key ingredient. These medicines are supposedly a cure for nosebleeds, strokes, comas, high blood pressure and paralysis in one’s face amongst others.

Fact or Folly

Researchers at Hong Kong’s Chinese University discovered during the early 90’s that doses of Rhino horn extract could slightly lower fever….. in rats. They found that extracts from water buffalo horn had the same effect. However the dosages used in those experiments far exceeded that used in traditional Chinese medicine, by more than a hundred fold.

This is a great amount more than would ever be prescribed by a traditional healer. It is also believed that elements in Rhino horn could possibly detect certain poisons. The alkalinity in poisons may react with the keratin protein found throughout the horn.

Rhino horn is not merely made from condensed hair. Its structure and composition is much the same as the hooves of a horse, Rhinoceroses’ closets living relative. In fact, Rhino horn is not considered “Real Horn” at all, as it has no skeletal support unlike most horned animal species.

Rhino horn is predominantly made from Keratin, the same as our finger nails and hair. Its chemical composition varies depending on the diet and habitat of the animal. The center is made from a composite of minerals and calcium which protects and strengthens it against weathering.

During combat or rubbing against tree bark and stones, the inner core gets sharpened as the softer outer layer is worn away, gradually sculpting its distinctive sharp tip.

Recent studies by Dr. Raj Amin at the Zoological Society of London confirmed that no element of Rhino horn holds any medical properties for humans. It does not have any anti-inflammatory or pain-relieving properties, nor does it have any effect against intestinal bacteria. “Medically, it’s the same as if you were chewing your own nails,” says Dr. Amin.


2 Responses to The rhino horn rush: stigma behind a tradition

  1. Bhagya January 13, 2011 at 7:56 pm #

    Is it true that some rhino horn is being poisoned to control poaching? How do they do that without hurting the rhino?

    • Africafreak January 18, 2011 at 11:29 am #

      Hi Bhagya,

      Can you please forward me the article that talks about “rhino horn poisoning”, because I must admit I have never heard about anything like this. I’ll have to look into it.



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