Rhino horn: All myth, no medicine

By Rhishja Larson

Although few features in the animal kingdom are as magnificent as the horn of the rhino, such magnificence comes at a deadly price: The illegal rhino horn trade is responsible for decimating the world’s rhino population by more than 90 percent over the past 40 years.

Rhinoceros_unicornis_Nepal.jpgGreater one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis), Chitwan National Park, Nepal.

Photo courtesy of Suman Bhattarai

And a recent upsurge in rhino poaching has conservationists extremely concerned.

2006: A spike in illegal rhino horn trade

The 2009 report African and Asian Rhinoceroses–Status, Conservation and Trade (IUCN/TRAFFIC) revealed that illegal trade in rhino horn, particularly in southern Africa, had become progressively worse since 2006.

“The combined loss of horns from poaching, thefts from natural mortalities, government stocks and other private collections, abuse of legal trophy hunting and illegal private sector sales suggests that a minimum of 1,521 rhino horns were destined for illegal trade in this time period. Compared to the six-year period 2000-2005 when a minimum of 664 horns were acquired for illicit trade purposes, this figure represents a two-fold increase in the annual illegal rhino horn trade in less than four years,” the report states.


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Illegal rhino horn trade shifts from Yemen to China and Vietnam

In addition to the increase in trade, the 2009 study found that the majority of African rhino horns were now headed for traditional medicine markets in China and Vietnam. This indicated a shift from the previous destination of Yemen, for the purpose of crafting dagger handles known as jambiyas.

“Currently, most rhino horns leaving southern Africa are destined for end-use markets in southeast and east Asia, especially Vietnam and China; available evidence does not (at this time) implicate Yemen, another traditional end-use market in this trade,” says the IUCN/TRAFFIC report.

There had been a similar increase in illegal rhino horn movement from Nepal and India during the same time period.

“The major trade route for horns is from Assam to Kathmandu in Nepal, via Siliguri, and then on to Tibet. The ultimate destination for this horn is believed to be other markets in China.”

Rhino horn is a time-honored component of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). For thousands of years, TCM has credited rhino horn with the potency to cure an unusually wide array of maladies, from headaches to pus-filled boils–and even devil possession.

Today, decades of conservation efforts are at risk of being undermined by what appears to be a reinvigorated TCM market in China and Vietnam.

But does rhino horn really have any useful medicinal properties?

Rhino horn ‘prescribed for nearly everything’

Rhino horn has been an essential ingredient in traditional chinese medicine for centuries. An unfortunate proximity to China explains why the combined total of the three Asian rhino species (Javan, Sumatran, and greater one-horned rhino) is still smaller than Africa’s critically endangered black rhino population.

Despite China being a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and banning trade in rhinoceros horn and its derivatives in 1993, current rhino poaching levels suggest that the use of rhino horn continues unabated in traditional medicine markets.

According to Bernard Read’s 1931 translation of Li Shih-chen’s 1597 materia medica Pen Ts’ ao Kang Mu, rhino horn was prescribed for nearly everything: “To cure devil possession and keep away all evil spirits and miasmas. For gelsemium poisoning. To remove hallucinations and bewitching nightmares. Continuous administration lightens the body and makes one very robust. For typhoid, headache and feverish colds. For carbuncles and boils full of pus. For intermittent fevers with delirium. 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. It is an antidote to the evil miasma of hill streams. For infantile convulsions and dysentery. Ashed and taken with water to treat violent vomiting, food poisoning, and overdosage of poisonous drugs. For arthritis, melancholia, loss of the voice.”

Ironically, it seems the only condition rhino horn is not prescribed for is a lagging libido.

Putting rhino horn to the test

In an effort to educate the public about the alleged curative properties of rhino horn, several scientific studies have been commissioned.

Testing was carried out in 1983 by researchers at Hoffmann-LaRoche, and followed up 25 years later with a study at the Zoological Society of London. Both studies arrived at the same conclusion: Rhino horn contains no medical properties.

Additionally, research conducted in 1990 at the Chinese University of Hong Kong was unable to produce evidence to support the wild claims of rhino horn’s curative power.

Rhino horn ‘is of no use to anyone except the original owner’

In1983 the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published the results of a pharmacological study conducted by researchers at Hoffmann-LaRoche in The Environmentalist.

The study “found no evidence that rhino horn has any medicinal effect as an antipyretic and would be ineffective in reducing fever, a common usage in much of Asia.”

“Rhino horn, like fingernails, is made of agglutinated hair.”

Testing also confirmed that “rhino horn, like fingernails, is made of agglutinated hair” and “has no analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmolytic nor diuretic properties” and “no bactericidal effect could be found against suppuration and intestinal bacteria.”

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Dr. Arne Schiotz of WWF summed it up: “This proves that rhino horn is of no use to anyone except the original owner. You would get the same effect from chewing your own fingernails.”

Rhino horn the same as ‘chewing your own nails’

Rhino horn was recently analyzed extensively by Dr. Raj Amin at the Zoological Society of London. The tests confirmed what had been found by Hoffmann-LaRoche researchers: Rhino horn contains no medical properties.
“There is no evidence at all that any constituent of rhino horn has any medical property. Medically, it’s the same as if you were chewing your own nails,” says Dr. Amin.

His analysis further revealed that rhino horn contains identifying elements–similar to fingerprints–which provide information about where the horns originated. This helps authorities determine which rhino populations are being targeted by poachers.

Watch Dr. Amin explain this in the video here:

By analyzing the chemical “fingerprint” of rhino horns, scientists help in the fight against poaching.

Video courtesy of Nature via YouTube

Rhino horn reduces fever in rats–but only at 100 times the prescribed dosage

Scientists at the Chinese University of Hong Kong also failed to confirm the alleged efficacy of rhino horn as a useful medicine (Ethnopharmacology of Rhinoceros Horn. I: Antipyretic Effects of Rhinoceros Horn and Other Animal Horns).

After inducing fever in rats with turpentine oil, the rats were injected with a dosage of rhino horn extract equal to 100 times the prescribed amount for human patients.

The rats’ rectal temperatures lowered after the injection, and the effect lasted for an hour and a half. Additional injections of rhino horn at decreasing dosage levels were administered to the rats at 30 minute intervals for three hours. The dosage levels comparable to what would be prescribed to a human patient had no antipyretic effect.

The conclusion? “Apparently, based on the results of this study, rhinoceros horn can reduce fever, but only at rather high dosage levels when prescribed as a single drug.”

Myth vs. medicine

Scientific analysis has confirmed that the notion of rhino horn as a “medicine” is nothing more than a myth–yet millions of people still persist in believing that rhino horn is a remedy.

Is this simply because rhino horn consumers do not have access to accurate information? Or has the rhino horn “business” become so profitable that belief in the curative properties of rhino horn is actually encouraged?

One thing is clear: If we hope to protect rhinos from being plundered to extinction, then we must educate consumers of rhino horn that it has no medicinal value or curative properties–before it’s too late.




Rhishja Larson is the founder and Program Director of Saving Rhinos LLC, a public awareness program focusing on the illegal trade in rhino horn. She shares news, opinion, and commentary on her blog Rhino Conservation: Rhino Horn is Not Medicine.

The views expressed here are those of Rhishja Larson or Saving Rhinos and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society.

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Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn