Myths, More Than Traditional Medicine, Driving Rhino Slaughter

By Andrew C. Revkin

5:02 p.m. | Updated below |


Rhinoceros populations from Asia through Africa are plummeting in the face of burgeoning illicit trade in their horns, much of it driven by myths promoted by criminal smuggling syndicates and targeting the new wealthy in China and Vietnam. The Green blog and Dot Earth have explored these issues, but it’s worth a slightly deeper dive, here provided in a “Your Dot” contribution from Matthew Wilkinson, the founder and editor of the informative Safaritalk blog.

Here’s an excerpt and link to the full essay by Wilkinson, which I’ve posted via Slideshare.net:

Matt Wilkinson: As someone who devotes his days to highlighting wildlife conservation in Africa, when I’m asked to name my greatest concern, without hesitation I say the poaching onslaught devastating rhinoceros populations. With so many pressing problems besetting wildlife and the environment, why this one issue over and above everything else? The answer is shaped by the shocking way in which the rhinos are killed and their horns removed, the widespread myths fueling the recent poaching escalation and the apparent inability of governments to tackle this massive problem with anything approaching competence.

In South Africa as of mid October, 439 rhinos had been killed so far in 2012. That is only 9 short of last year’s total, and 432 more than the 7 reported in 2000. Throughout Africa, on average 50 rhinos are killed for their horns each month – and of course that doesn’t include the losses of Indian, Sumatran and Javan rhinos, whose numbers are plummeting. Despite public awareness campaigns, worldwide petitions, increasing press coverage and pressure on African governments, and large amounts of money donated to rhino conservation groups, the slaughter accelerates. So, why is it still happening?

Use of rhino horn in Traditional Chinese Medicine [TCM below] and Traditional Oriental Medicine dates back centuries. In a recent Safaritalk article, a retired practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine described the horn’s allure this way: “The character of rhino horn is very cool and is used for curing the heat. The character of the remedy brings the healing; rhino horn is cool, salty, bitter. Viruses create heat (high temperature), and because ancient medicine didn’t know about bacteria, they would use the character of the illness for diagnosis and treatment.” He went on to say, “Rhino horn would clear the heat in the blood and de-toxify the blood in the body. It is also used to treat conditions causing the blood to ‘go the wrong way,’ such as nosebleed. Only a small amount of horn is used, mixed with the other ingredients (herbs, gypsum) or tea.” But since 1993 trade in rhino horn, (as well as tiger parts) was banned by the Chinese government with the aim of stopping the use of endangered wildlife derivatives in TCM: but advocates cling to historical evidence, knowing their ancestors used it, their parents, grandparents: the reason why it continues to be used today by many Chinese families. “As far as the manner of the death and suffering of an animal; to an un-educated Chinese as long as a medicine can save children they don’t care where it comes from,” stated the practitioner to Safaritalk.

Alternative traditional cures exist which are proven to work, are not derived from rhinos, (or any other animal), and are much cheaper to buy. The practitioner says in the article that his mother used to dig roots, adding, “You don’t have to use rhino horn.” And leafing through an ancient Chinese medical textbook he showed there to be over 500 different herbs in addition to animal remedies and stressed there are “botanical TCM substitutes for rhino horn, and… that’s what people should concentrate on.”

So instead of demonizing traditional Asian medical practices solely based on the use of rhino horn, it’s time greater emphasis is placed upon promoting these herbal alternatives. With perfectly valid and cost effective herbal remedies, who exactly is benefiting from the trade in the prohibitively expensive rhino horn? Surely not the end user.

Rhino Horn as Cancer Cure and Club Drug

So while reliance on rhino horn in Asian medicine may be on a gradual decline (although much slower than is necessary for the survival of the world’s five rhino species), a more immediate threat is posed from two newly developing markets for rhino horn: spurious media reports of its miraculous cancer-curing properties (no doubt propaganda on the part of those fuelling demand) and a frightening rise in the demand for horn as a statement of wealth and affluence. [Read the rest.]

Also notable is the recent blog in which the Chinese basketball star Yao Ming, working with the nonprofit group WildAid, tracked his trip along the horn and ivory trail to Africa.

Via a Twitter reaction from the free-market proponents at the Property and Environment Research Center, I listened to a fascinating podcast from Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, a South African resource economist, that provides a constructive counterpoint. I’d be curious to see comments from the region. Here’s a description from the group’s Web site with a link to the audio:

In 1900, the southern white rhinoceros was the most endangered of the five rhinoceros species. Less than 20 rhinos remained in a single reserve in South Africa. By 2010, white rhino numbers had climbed to more than 20,000, making it the most common rhino species on the planet.

Saving the white rhino from extinction can be attributed to a change in policy that allowed private ownership of wildlife. While protecting the rhinos encouraged breeding, the ranchers were able to profit by limited trophy hunting.

Poaching for rhino horn, which is in high demand for medicinal and ornamental purposes, had also devastated the rhino population. CITES banned the commercial sale of rhino horn, which caused black market sales to sky rocket and encouraged poaching. If the ban were lifted, ranchers are ready to supply the market by harvesting the horns humanely, which then regrow just like fingernails.

Strong property rights and market incentives have provided a successful model for rhino conservation, despite the negative impact of command-and-control approaches that rely on regulations and bans that restrict wildlife use. [Listen here.]

To view this article, visit The New York Times.

 

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