TCM and the demise of the Rhinoceros

Not for the first time in the last millennium or more do the five or so species of rhinoceros find themselves under the cosh. I am receiving a spate of petitions informing me of the sobering statistics in South Africa in particular, home to the Southern White Rhino. Year-on-year more are getting poached and the trend suggests that at least as many rhinos will be poached this year as last (c450 animals). The number could even be over 500, depending on demand and the effectiveness of conservation efforts (see graphic below, white rhinos poached between 2007-2011 in RSA)

There are still many more than there were at the turn of the last century when numbers plummeted to several dozen animals in South Africa, which is evidence of their robust nature. The market was then, as it is now, in foreign lands, whose markets for horn have proved equally tenacious, although there have been some changes in attitude over the last century in certain places.

To many of us this seems like an unpleasant sense of déjà vu does it not? Those of us who grew up in Zimbabwe will remember the various rhino conservation programs and the notable activities of individuals like the Rhino Girls who cycled across the continent to raise awareness for the cause. Why is this problem failing to diminish despite all these efforts and why is there so much misinformation, even amongst apparently modern, rational Westerners?

This is not meant to be a research paper and I haven’t backed up every assertion and statement with a reference, but most I have gleaned from the web through relevant organisational websites:;;;

Other sources have been referenced too and cited where necessary. Having perused these pages I feel I am a little better informed. Like many Westerners I was under the impression that rhino horn was used almost exclusively as an aphrodisiac. Apparently this is not the case according to more one of these sites. Neither is the use of horn in the manufacture of Yemenese dagger handles a significant threat to rhino populations any longer. The major use is in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), allegedly as an anti-pyretic (fever reducer), analgesic (pain killer), anti-cancer medication, and in the prevention of strokes. TCM is not just practised in China but also in neighbouring countries like Vietnam. Vietnamese nationals have been regularly implicated in the illegal trade in horn originating from South Africa.

It is also necessary to acknowledge that TCM has been practised for the better part of three millennia and, as such, many of its practises are strongly entrenched in the cultural and medicinal practises of much of South East Asia. Furthermore, like many traditional medicinal practises there may be grains of truth amongst the myths. One scientific study claims to have shown powdered rhino horn to have some very mild anti-pyretic properties in lab rats when administered at suitably high concentrations (however, the results are disputed by other researchers).

Whilst this may be a point to argue by the medicinal horn-advocates, it should be remembered that there are many existing, sustainable, over the counter equivalents like aspirin which essentially do the same thing, at no harm to the environment. Considering the current black market price of processed rhino horn (between US$20, 000 and $55, 000/kg) I can’t imagine that this use is what is driving the demand. More likely it is as a purported use for more serious life threatening ailments like cancer.

If, like me, you have lived with someone suffering with terminal cancer, you will know firsthand the desperation those persons felt at one time or another in finding an effective palliative medicine (to reduce suffering and pain), notwithstanding the hope of a miracle cure. It is very difficult to be completely objective in such situations, but even here we have to draw a line. My father was afflicted by a malignant brain tumour from 2003 until his death from complications arising from treatment in early 2006. Whilst he suffered acutely, mainly from the side-effects of powerful corticosteroids prescribed him, in his last year of life he conceived of a notion (whose provenance remains a mystery) that an infusion of cobra venom into the tumour itself would cure him of the cancer. We searched online and could find no pharmaceutical medication derived from the said snake venom and, with difficulty, I had to emphasize this several times. Perhaps it was something said once upon a time or a speculation made by one doctor or another, but the point is that the promise of a cure was very real for him. Had there been a complementary medicine derived from snake venom it probably wasn’t the sort of thing you would find online and quite likely very dangerous, unless it had been denatured. However, had it been offered to my father he most likely would have taken it out of desperation and I have little doubt that he would have paid for it, regardless of the cost.

I imagine it is the same for people suffering terminal cancer or other serious malady in traditional Chinese society. When one’s very life is at stake what financial price is too much to pay? But we have to draw a line and adhere to the rational approach to medicine that has advanced the life expectancy and quality of life for people everywhere it is practised effectively. And this includes traditional medicine (TM) too. There are many examples of how TM has been employed effectively, often in a palliative way and in some cases as a cure. (St John’s wort springs to mind, used extensively in European TM apparently?). Where proven to be effective many TMs have been incorporated into pharmaceuticals, BUT only after having proven to be safe and effective through rigorous and controlled clinical trial testing.

Returning to the subject of rhino horn and its use as an anti-cancer treatment, the denials come from both within and from without the TCM practitioners. Two authoritative quotes I found on the site

“There is no evidence that rhino horn is an effective cure for cancer and this is not documented in TCM nor is it approved by the clinical research in traditional Chinese medicine.” – Lixin Huang, Statement opposing the use of rhino horn in medicines by the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine

“To all this, I say that something that works for everything usually works for nothing. I also say that something that has been used for hundreds or thousands of years does not make it right.” – Dr. Albert Lim Kok Hooi, oncologist based in Kuala Lumpur, A horny story

Considering that rhino populations are in such a perilous position, the question has to be asked “how much can the use of rhino horn in TCM be accommodated considering the threat to the survival of the species?” The rational answer is that it cannot. But is the world quite as rational as we would hope? Consider that the UK market for herbal, homeopathic and aromatherapy products stood at a not inconsiderable £188 million in 2010.

Worldwide the alternative or complementary medicines must be over a billion sterling, by conjecture? Ok, so I concede that many of these products are regulated and authorised by government agencies before being allowed to go to market. However, my understanding is that they only have to prove safe for human consumption, the substance being administered at the discretion of the TM or CM practitioner and its effectiveness not clinically proven. The efficacy of many of these medicines is assumed by consumers because of the perceived integrity of the TM cultures, their tradition and longevity.

The fact of the matter is that within cultures we place a great deal of emphasis on human life (contrary to the practises of wars of ideology or conquest). If it were scientifically validated that rhino horn was indeed the elixir of life the hapless rhinoceros would probably be eliminated tomorrow. If we were somehow able to preserve the species, against the odds, at the very least there would be some sort of highly regulated dispensation of the stuff, probably at mind boggling costs. Certainly there would be great financial incentive to start farming the pachyderms to meet the enormous demand. But I ask you to pause for a second… rhino horn is selling for mind boggling amounts which strongly suggests that it is being peddled as this very elixir of life. Interestingly it is not just criminal syndicates looking to cash in on illegal poaching and rhino horn smuggling operations but legitimate businesses too, as a recent expose by Time magazine revealed.

Chinese nationals have allegedly invested, beginning some five or so years ago, in a multi-million dollar project to start a rhino-harvesting project on China’s Hainan Island in the South China Sea, in contravention of CITES. Despite a cover that it is to be a tourist-oriented safari park called  Africa View, there was no evidence of this objective when visited by a local journalist in 2006. The sixty rhinos penned there were being kept in concrete pens with not a tourist in sight. A business portfolio published by Longhui, the company investing in the project, and a subsidiary of an arms manufacturing group, states the real objectives: to produce various rhino horn products, including detoxification tablets, for retail in the TCM market. Sales revenues are projected to be of the order of US $60 million per annum if all goes to plan.,9171,2075283-4,00.html

One might applaud this approach as being better than the poaching and slaughter that is occurring elsewhere. I have found myself enticed by this approach, initially anyway. Is it feasible? Well, certainly none of the web sites referenced above advocate it in any way, most citing the strict CITES regulations on the trade in rhino horn which clearly rule out commercial trade in, or refining of, rhino horn in any way whatsoever. I can only assume that the commercial aspects have been debated at length by those involved in formulating CITES agreements. I can only assume that their collective wisdom has been brought to bear in the arguments for and against farming the animals for sustainable harvesting of horn. Personally I can’t imagine it would bode well for the rhinoceros anyhow, considering the size of the market and the apparent demand, coupled with the obvious difficulties in scaling up the farming of the beasts to a level necessary to satisfy this market.

The unfortunate truth is that the construction of the farm on Hainan may well have contributed to the surge in demand for rhino horn in the last five years or so. There is a corollary in the story of elephant conservation and the efforts of CITES legislation. I read of the effects of the brief lifting of the CITES ban on the trade in ivory in the 1990s which permitted several African governments to sell off considerable ivory stockpiled from animals who died natural deaths or from regulated hunting/culling operations. It prompted the swift emergence of a number of ivory carving operations in South-East Asia (mainly China I think) to process this ivory, but which also boosted demand and led to an upswing in poaching operations shortly thereafter, a trend which perpetuated for several years I recall reading. Given the robust status of the elephant in some regions, like the Hwange National Park in my home country of Zimbabwe, it is possible that some sort of long-term regulated trade might just be entertained. The problem is that an increase in the demand for ivory, like rhino horn, affects elephants everywhere and there are marginal and fragile populations which are very sensitive to interference.

It seems as if a “hands off” conservation approach coupled with strong condemnation of anyone involved in the illegal trade of horn, indeed criminalising it, is the best approach for those countries hosting existent rhino populations. But this is not enough I’m sure you will agree and we need to appeal to the market itself; those practising TCM and more especially those who consume rhino horn derivatives for whatever ailment. It is perhaps heartening to read that the issuing of a Fatwa (a strict Islamic edict) by the Grand Mufti in Yemen, at the time they became a CITES signatory in 1997, saying it was against the will of Islam to kill rhinos for dagger handles, that the practise was largely abandoned and alternatives used (water buffalo horn for instance).

This shows the effect that someone in power, someone respected by the people, can have in effecting a major shift in an a formerly entrenched cultural practise or belief. We have to appeal to the leaders of China, Vietnam, Laos and others in the region that may be involved in the consumption of horn products as advocated by TCM. To this end there is a petition penned by Africa Geographic appealing to the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, H E Mr Nguyen Manh Hung, of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, to help implement a nation-wide education campaign in his country, and to produce “a legally binding Memorandum of Understanding between South Africa and Vietnam aimed at combating the trade, sale and use of rhino horn (which) must be signed and implemented without delay.”

Petition post-script: In South Africa a rhino is brutally killed every 22 hours. There is no time to waste!

Certainly a similar appeal must be made to those in authority in China, and ratcheted up until they feel obliged to act.

I would like to live in a world where sustainable utilisation and an appreciation for biodiversity becomes universal. If this were the case right now the market for rhino horn would dissipate for the simple reason that it is threatening the very existence of discrete groups of animals. I think it’s probably fanciful to believe that there could be such an abundance of animals that we could entertain the harvesting of horn from wild animals for whatever reason, but as an ideal we should consider it. Would it be any different to wearing leather if utilising the animal horn or hide? Or different to many of the CMs presently out there, harmless but without proven curative or palliative effects, if consumed?

The waters have been muddied by the findings that there may be a mild, but discernible anti-pyretic effect induced by a sufficiently concentrated infusion of horn extract. Never mind that the studies were conducted using lab rats and the levels required to have an equivalent effect in humans were not determined by the researchers. Most probably they are impractically high. Never mind that the effects are mild and short-lived. It is important to ensure that these findings are understood by the public in this context so that they cannot be used for the purposes of propaganda by profit-seeking healers or criminal entities involved in the illegal trade. The future of these irreplaceable and awe-inspiring beasts depends on it.

UPDATE 26-01-2013:

I am very sad to report that the figure for total rhinos poached in South Africa in 2012 is reported at 668 animals, substantially higher than the projection on my graph at top (c500) (as reported at Already 32 animals have been poached in the country since the beginning of the year (including 18 in the Kruger NP alone) (

6 thoughts on “TCM and the demise of the Rhinoceros”

  1. Also see
    “The Vietnamese had even cited statistics showing that illegal ­trafficking in rhino horn in Vietnam was decreasing…”. [This meeting between South African and Vietnamese officials was only 3 months ago.]
    ” ‘This is the Oriental experience founded a thousand years ago. It cannot change overnight. We have to convince the people through our own research that the horn means nothing.’
    He (Nguyen Truy Kien, a councillor in the Vietnamese government) said a campaign would be run in Vietnam to change people’s attitudes.” [Lets be vigilant and ensure that this happens.]


  2. Subsequent to posting I have been reading more on using dehorning as a conservation strategy and where different countries and interest groups stand on the issues at stake here. Dehorning has been shown to be viable and much of the pioneering work done in Zimbabwe. What is a apparent is that the higher the black market price of horn the less horn there has to be on the rhino at any one time, considering that the horn grows back with time, just like our nails and hair do after trimming. I say less horn in the sense that the less horn there is the less there is that can be retrieved by prospective poachers. Sadly with the sky high black market value of the stuff just a small boss or stump can be seen as a viable target by poachers, and the animal killed as a result.

    Also interested to read two recent opposing views on the issue of conservation. On the one hand we have the the South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association (SAHGCA) advocating the lifting of the CITES ban and a regulated trade in horn for the Asian market, and on the other the UK government allegedly taking a tough stance and pledging to commit to “to clamp down on the illegal trade in rhino horn and fight the archaic myths that fuel the continued demand for rhino horn products.”


  3. “Vietnam did not have a specific campaign around rhino poaching, Ha said, adding that by working with the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, Vietnam can come up with an awareness campaign targeting specific species.”
    “We have got a medical research institution involved in verifying if rhino horn can cure cancer, and we will make its finding public,” he (Twan Cong Ha, leader of the delegation) said.


  4. Excellent investigative article in March 12 edition of the National Geographic Magazine

    Has given me pause to reconsider Mr John Hume’s calls to legitimize the trade in horn through trophy hunting. He makes the suggestion that most of the individuals who obtain hunting permits are simply after the horn itself, and in his opinion they would quite happily dart the animal instead and be allowed to remove the horn. The animal is none the worse and its horn will regenerate at a modest rate. ” ‘A Vietnamese hunter would happily dart the animal, take the horns, and let it live’, he thunders. ‘But South African law requires the hunter to kill the rhino to export the horn as a trophy.’ He shakes his head at the illogic.”

    I first read about Mr Hume in a January article in the M&G:

    He makes the following argument: “At least the hunting with permits is mostly for males. The poachers will slaughter females and even lactating mothers.Destroying the stockpiles of horns would generate “a flurry of activity from the people in the rhino-horn mafia syndicates directed at securing as much horn as possible, because they will know that the rhino will be on its way to extinction. This horn will be secured only by way of poaching rhino.”

    At that time I was in the opposing camp (see my post as *Canismajor* two months back). Now I’m not so sure.

    Look again at the objectives of the SAHGCA in the article on the African Conservation Forum website:


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