The tragic medicinal myth which condemns hundreds of rhino to death every year

Their ivory is now believed to be worth more, gram for gram, than cocaine


It must count as one of the most tragic myths in the history of medicine: a lethal blend of nostalgia for traditional practices and a very modern hunger for luxury, status and prestige, all fuelled by a pernicious, baseless rumour.

Last year, more than 1,000 rhino were slaughtered in South Africa alone – the country’s worst ever year for poaching. The killings are a modern phenomenon, driven by a new and growing market for rhino horn as a medicine in China and other Asian nations – but most significantly in Vietnam.

The ingredient has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, as a “detoxifier” to treat fevers, headaches, impotence and other ills.

With little actual scientific evidence for any significant medical benefit, demand had been relatively low until very recently. In the past five years, it has soared – an escalation mirrored grimly in the number of animals killed by poachers in Africa. In 2007, just 13 were lost in South Africa. By 2012 it was 668 and last year 1,004. Thirty-seven have already died this year, as of mid-January.

Demand is driven by a small minority of wealthy consumers in Vietnam and to a lesser extent in China and elsewhere in Asia. Up to date prices are hard to come by, but some rhino horn is now widely believed to be more expensive, gram for gram, than gold or cocaine.

Investigations by Traffic, the wildlife trade campaign group, have revealed that rhino horn has become a fashionable health supplement, used by high status businessmen, celebrities and even government officials to relieve hangovers, cure colds and generally increase wellbeing. It is usually ground into a powder and mixed with water to create a smoky-tasting medicine.

The root of the current vogue is believed to be an urban myth, which began circulating as early as 2009, that an unnamed senior politician, or in some versions his wife, was cured of cancer after taking rhino horn. Traditional Chinese medical manuals make no mention of rhino horn as a cancer cure, but the myth has taken hold in a country where cancer rates are rising significantly.

Claims of its benefit have been supported by some senior traditional practitioners in recent years.

However, the actual scientific basis for using rhino horn as a medicine for any condition is almost non-existent. The only academically sound study ever conducted into its effect on humans found a short-lived benefit in treating childhood fever – but the same test found that simply taking a version of paracetamol was far more effective, according to a 2012 report by the CITES Secretariat. In Vietnam, though, the main reason for buying rhino horn is prestige. Dr Richard Thomas, from Traffic, said it had become a “status symbol”.

“People show off that they are able to afford this fabulously expensive drug,” said Dr Thomas. “It’s used as a body detoxifier – people mix it up as a powder in water, then take it before they start drinking so they don’t get a hangover, or later to cure a hangover.

“The origin of the cancer rumour is one of those things you can never pin down. It’s an urban myth and we have come across examples of criminals directly targeting cancer patients saying: ‘This is the new miracle drug that will cure you’.” A survey of 720 consumers in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, carried out by Traffic and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) last year, found that “ buyers and users of rhino horn form a powerful social network consisting of important individuals with whom it is crucial to maintain good relationships” and the luxury item is often given as a gift to family members or business colleagues.

The Vietnamese news website has referred to “rhino horn with wine” as the “alcoholic drink of millionaires” and there are even reports of it being snorted with cocaine.

“The truth is, rhino horn is keratin, the same material as our hair and nails,” said Dr Raj Amin, senior wildlife biologist at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), who is attending today’s conference on the illegal wildlife trade in London.

“There is next to no medicinal value to it. It just makes no sense and it has been a battle. When you’re working in the field, seeing the rhino carcasses, it is baffling. To kill; to go to such efforts to acquire something useless, is just baffling.”

Read more about our elephant campaign


React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Litigation NQ+

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE NQ to MID LEVEL - An e...


Highly Attractive Pakage: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - A highly attractive oppor...

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Norovirus the food poisoning bug that causes violent stomach flu  

A flu pandemic could decide next year’s election

Matthew Norman
J. Jayalalithaa gestures to her party supporters while standing on the balcony of her residence in Chennai. Former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is one of India's most colourful and controversial politicians  

The jailing of former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is a drama even Bollywood couldn’t produce

Andrew Buncombe
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?