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Medical Myths and Status Seekers Driving Rhino Slaughter


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Matt Wilkinson, the founder of the Safaritalk blog on African conservation, wrote this "Your Dot" post for the New York Times Dot Earth blog on factors driving the Rhino poaching surge, and possible paths to saving the species.
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Medical Myths and Status Seekers Driving Rhino Slaughter

  1. 1. This is a Dot Earth “Your Dot” contribution from Matthew Wilkinson, who, a self-funded project highlighting wildlife conservation, environmentalprotection and community initiatives in Sub-Saharan Africa.--------------As someone who devotes his days to highlighting wildlife conservation in Africa, when I’masked to name my greatest concern, without hesitation I say the poaching onslaughtdevastating rhinoceros populations. With so many pressing problems besetting wildlife andthe environment, why this one issue over and above everything else? The answer is shaped bythe shocking way in which the rhinos are killed and their horns removed, the widespreadmyths fueling the recent poaching escalation and the apparent inability of governments totackle 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 shortof last year’s total, and 432 more than the 7 reported in 2000. Throughout Africa, on average50 rhinos are killed for their horns each month – and of course that doesn’t include the lossesof Indian, Sumatran and Javan rhinos, whose numbers are plummeting. Despite publicawareness campaigns, worldwide petitions, increasing press coverage and pressure on Africangovernments, and large amounts of money donated to rhino conservation groups, theslaughter accelerates. So, why is it still happening?Use of rhino horn in Traditional Chinese Medicine [TCM below] and Traditional OrientalMedicine dates back centuries. In a recent Safaritalk article, a retired practitioner of traditionalChinese medicine described the horn’s allure this way: “The character of rhino horn is verycool and is used for curing the heat. The character of the remedy brings the healing; rhino hornis cool, salty, bitter. Viruses create heat (high temperature), and because ancient medicinedidnt know about bacteria, they would use the character of the illness for diagnosis andtreatment.” He went on to say, “Rhino horn would clear the heat in the blood and de-toxifythe blood in the body. It is also used to treat conditions causing the blood to "go the wrongway," such as nosebleed. Only a small amount of horn is used, mixed with the otheringredients (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 endangeredwildlife derivatives in TCM: but advocates cling to historical evidence, knowing their ancestorsused it, their parents, grandparents: the reason why it continues to be used today by manyChinese 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 dont care where it comesfrom,” stated the practitioner to Safaritalk.Alternative traditional cures exist which are proven to work, are not derived from rhinos, (orany other animal), and are much cheaper to buy. The practitioner says in the article that hismother used to dig roots, adding, “You don’t have to use rhino horn.” And leafing through anancient Chinese medical textbook he showed there to be over 500 different herbs in additionto 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 1
  2. 2. horn, it’s time greater emphasis is placed upon promoting these herbal alternatives. Withperfectly valid and cost effective herbal remedies, who exactly is benefiting from the trade inthe prohibitively expensive rhino horn? Surely not the end user.Rhino Horn as Cancer Cure and Club DrugSo while reliance on rhino horn in Asian medicine may be on a gradual decline (although muchslower than is necessary for the survival of the world’s five rhino species), a more immediatethreat is posed from two newly developing markets for rhino horn: spurious media reports ofits miraculous cancer-curing properties (no doubt propaganda on the part of those fuellingdemand) and a frightening rise in the demand for horn as a statement of wealth and affluence.In a statement last year [relevant link], Lixin Huang, president of both the American College ofTraditional Chinese Medicine and Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine,wrote: “For that reason, American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Council ofColleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine would reiterate that rhino horn is no longerapproved for use by the traditional Chinese medicine profession and there is no traditionaluse, nor any evidence for the effectiveness of, rhino horn as a cure for cancer.” Despite thistotal repudiation of the cancer curing claims, the upswing in the sales of horn for the use incancer treatment continues.This is just one of the misconceptions surrounding the use of rhino horn in Asia, another beingthe oft repeated assertion about its use as an aphrodisiac, this latter myth being promotedthrough social media circles. The practitioner interviewed for Safaritalk stated he had “neverseen a case in his entire career where rhino horn was used as an aphrodisiac.” Yet, as TomMilliken states in his recent Traffic report on the trade, “Use of rhino horn as an aphrodisiac inAsian traditional medicine has long been debunked as a denigrating, unjust characterization ofthe trade by Western media, but such usage is now, rather incredibly, being documented inViet Nam as the media myth turns full circle.”Certainly, as the street value of rhino horn increases (the price of an ounce of rhino horn beingmore than that of gold), so does the propaganda: a seemingly wonder product of boundlessmagical properties (none scientifically proven), having nothing to do with the historicaltraditions of Asian medicine but everything to do with the profit margins of those selling it.Peter Milton from SPOTS SA, in a recent Safaritalk interview, stated, “We are extremelyconcerned that the growth in demand for rhino horn is not only due to TCM. A new, verysinister market has been created by the syndicates... in clubs, pubs, etc. In China and Vietnam,rhino horn is being sold and used as ‘the in thing to do’ -- a statement of wealth andaffluence.” These wealthy users who consume it, much like a drug, as a status symbol, are anaudience we have no hope of reaching with educational campaigns, and indeed, as the rhinobecomes ever more endangered, their use of rhino horn will increase. It is against thisbackground that governments must take greater action. And yet a wall of denial has been builtup by Vietnamese authorities, including Do Quang Tung, deputy director in Vietnam of themanagement authority for the Cites wildlife conservation treaty. He refuses to admit Vietnamis a major destination for South African rhino horn. An informed Safaritalk contributor statedin a discussion of the illegal trade, “If you’re caught smuggling over 600 grams of heroin into 2
  3. 3. Vietnam you will face the death penalty, whereas if you’re caught smuggling rhino horn (orivory) you get little more than a slap on the wrist I believe. So why risk death smuggling drugswhen you can make as much if not more money from rhino horn and other wildlife productswithout any appreciable risk, this is the real problem. The Vietnamese authorities just don’ttake this issue seriously enough (or at all) as it appears that rhino horn is sold quite openly inthe country. Two years ago the very last known mainland lesser one-horned (Javan) rhino wasfound poached in Nam Cat Tien National Park in Vietnam. Maybe these rhinos were beyondsaving but still to me this gives some indication of the Vietnamese government’s attitude torhino conservation.”De-horning Solution?So is dehorning an option? Ayesha Cantor from Kragga Kamma Game Park in South Africabelieves it is, but not in every case. In her Safaritalk article documenting the dehorningprocess, she writes: “De-horning is not a suitable option in a lot of instances. Rhino use theirhorns to defend themselves against predators, elephant, and other rhino. Black rhino use theirhorns to pull down branches, especially if they have a calf at foot to help browse. There is also the thought that de-horning would affect their social interaction. Each rhinos circumstances should be carefully considered before de- horning… it is not ideal, however, in this case, we believe we are doing everything we can to keep these three safe from poachers.” In her case it was effective: “Over the last 18 months or so we have received an escalating number of tipoffsthat our rhino are a target to be poached…” going on to say, “Since the de-horning, nearlythree months ago, we have had not one single tipoff that our rhino are a target.” KraggaKamma is a specific example, a small-scale property where a family is trying to make adifference, but in wilderness areas past evidence has shown that poachers will kill a dehornedrhino anyway, so as to not waste time tracking them in the future. ( Photo by Ayesha Cantor, KraggaKamma Game Park, S. Africa.)With an escalating street value, it matters less to the poacher whether the rhino is dehornedor not, they will cut down the very last millimeter. The highest dollar is paid for what is called“Wet Horn”, the part which is attached to the skull, i.e., the bloodied stump. Those profitingfrom the trade claim that the horn from a poached rhino will be more effective than that of“dry” stockpiled horn, or farmed rhino. (Where the horn is harvested periodically allowing forthe horns to grow back over a period of time.) This being evidenced in the horrific way thatrhinos are poached: shot, but more frequently tranquilized by a dart gun using the fast actingM99 drug, poachers hack the horn from the skull using pangas, (machetes), or chainsaws,causing serve injuries from which the rhino, if not killed outright, rarely recovers. And the 3
  4. 4. poaching syndicates are well prepared, financed and logistically equipped. Using helicopters tohome in on the rhino, shooting from the air, they can be in and out having poached more thanone rhino at a time before anti-poaching units are anywhere near the scene.A solution that has support from some sectors, though dividing opinion, is a one-off stockpilesale plus the notion of sustainable farming to supply the market with a continuous supply.Milton in his interview puts it well: “we are dealing with very sophisticated criminal networks…they aren’t simply going to turn their backs on the lucrative illegal rhino horn trade – they havealready created a parallel market, i.e., the ‘fresh wild product’ versus the ‘stockpiled product.’Poachers are paid way more for ‘wet poached’ horn than ‘dry.’ So, in releasing dry stockpiledproduct all we will do is grow demand – and we will grow that demand for both the stockpiledproduct and the ‘superior’ poached product.”One can recognize the huge amount of money tied up in stockpiled horns. But in the event ofsuch a sale, who would the proceeds benefit? Undoubtedly private farmers, some of whomfavor the trade, but how much would be directed to conservation? Obviously in the case ofgovernment conservation institutions the argument is that such proceeds would drive furtherconservation efforts: but how can this be guaranteed? Would a one-off sale or rhino farmingstifle demand? I don’t believe so; you only have to look at the last legal auction of ivoryconducted 2008 which, though intended to halt the illegal trade, has only served to reignitethe demand, see the New York Times article “Elephants Dying in Epic Frenzy as Ivory FuelsWars and Profits.”With demand for rhino horn moving away from the traditional medicine market to the newaffluent “designer drug” market, coupled with an ever-increasing middle class and consumereconomy in Vietnam and China, one can see that horn will be peddled to a growing number ofpeople who could care less for the source of their illicit pleasure.To quote once more Peter Milton, “Against this backdrop, the outlook for the rhino is verybleak. There is no doubt that without significant public and political pressure on thegovernments of all countries known to be dealing in rhino horn and other animal parts, toactively and aggressively shut down these markets, the rhino and many other species willsimply not survive.” Is there enough will from governments to tackle the crisis head on? InSouth Africa, Vietnamese diplomats have been implicated in the illicit smuggling of horn (andexpelled), including Vu Moc Anh, who was filmed trading horn outside the Vietnameseembassy in Pretoria. Article 27 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations meansdiplomatic bags or pouches are immune to search, as are the couriers accompanying them. Iwonder just how much rhino horn has been (or will be) smuggled out of South Africa this way?So at what stage will President Zuma take a sterner diplomatic approach? When the gene poolhas been so reduced as to make extinction a real possibility? Rhino numbers have hung in thebalance before, and they have been brought back from the brink, thanks to effortsspearheaded by Dr. Ian Player.But in such a connected world, can we afford to let the situation reach that precarious levelagain?One of the comments I’ve seen recently is that the public is becoming “rhino’ed out” -- turned 4
  5. 5. off by the repetitive use of grisly and explicit images of dead rhino and endless circulation ofpetitions. So, how does one convey the message in in ways that are more apt to be effective?And how do we insure that the most important audience of all, in China and Vietnam, gets themessage? It would be helpful if a select group of highly placed practitioners of traditional Asianmedicine from around the world publicly denounced the medical properties of rhino horn. Thiswould help expose the fact that demand is driven by criminal greed and profit, not medicalevidence. Produced as a multilingual public-service announcement, the resulting statementwould ideally be broadcast by the Vietnamese and Chinese governments to have the bestchance of having an impact.We cannot afford to alienate those who I know to be fighting against the trade from withinthese countries’ borders. I’ve personally engaged in fruitful discussions through social mediathat get around the “great firewall of China” and have challenged and changed attitudes in thespace of a few lines – not written by myself but by Chinese participants.To those who are fighting hard in China and Vietnam to change this culture, the mostproductive path is to expose the trade for what it is, a criminal con which, if not curbed, willultimately cause the rhino’s extinction and which, in turn, costs the user thousands of dollarsfor an ineffective cure. There do exist much cheaper, proven traditional Chinese medicines. Ifthose buying such products care little for animal welfare, and evidence suggests this to be thecase, then I’m sure they’ll appreciate sound financial advice.The only way to stop, or at least reduce poaching levels significantly is to halt the demand: 悲悯生灵,勿做凶手。拒绝购用犀角制品. "Be the Solution, not the cause. Stop buying rhinohorn products."To be take part in the numerous Safaritalk discussions, visit the website and join as a memberhere – read more about Peter Milton’s work with SPOTS South Africa, visit their website here see more from Ayesha Cantor’s Kragga Kamma Game Park in South Africa, visit her websitehere – 5