Small Towns, Monkeys and Nonagenarians

So this last week I’ve been back down in Durban, Kwazulu Natal, home to mum’s eldest sister, my gran and an assortment of cousins and their offspring. It was very nice to be able to see the ‘old lady’, erstwhile known as Mutty (moo-tee), born in 1921, and still plodding along.

Allegedly once a rather formidable lady she has been tamed by the passage of time and the limitations of an aging body. She is entirely dependent on her daughter now, her aging bones unable to lift her from her bed without assistance, her sight marred by advanced macular degeneration (MD) but, as I quipped to my cousin, at least it wasn’t a case of moral degradation… Quite the opposite in fact. The woman still insists on weekly communion, delivered courtesy of a parish minister who visits the various invalids on a Thursday.

I am ambivalent about the influence of Catholicism on my family, particularly with regards to my mother, but I have a choice as to how I want to live my life and I certainly don’t have to embrace the more puritanical aspects of the religion if I don’t want to. I felt that my mum lived a fairly good life – she was certainly quite selfless when it came to ministry and active service – but one lived with certain insecurities that her religion could not address.

It’s complicated and there’ve been times I’ve become quite worked up about it but on this occasion I chose to avoid these negative emotions and spent an hour two of the day chatting to Mutty on various topics: my unrealised ambitions; who in the family was doing what and where; and old memories. She was remarkably conversational, more so than the last time I saw her a year back. My aunt Liz put it down to the blood transfusion she’d recently received.

The rest of the family was busy as always. I arrived late on the Monday after Easter, ostensibly a holiday, to find my aunt working on some quotations. My uncle Derek’s asphalting business was always prone to fluctuations in cash flow so I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn how it been borderline viable over the Christmas period only recovering recently by dint of an influx of insurance jobs. Some late storms ensured that properties across the city experienced largely superficial damage to driveways, paving and exterior walls – bread and butter for my uncle’s business. I’d worked for him back in 2007 so I knew the deal.

The garden was looking great. My cousin Ellysa lived on the property with her husband Steve,  a commercial diver who was currently working offshore somewhere in the Persian Gulf. They are hoping to put down a deposit on an old house somewhere in the vicinity, perhaps in the hope of starting a family of their own. I’d always admired Steve, an Englishman by upbringing, for his energetic lifestyle. He’d made a number of improvements to the property between jobs which included installing several large, green, plastic JoJo tanks for rainwater storage. They had quite obviously made all the difference over the dry summer. The photos below speak for themselves:

Steve and Ellysa also do a great job of participating in a non-profit wildlife organisation called Monkey Helpline (you’ll find them on this page). I haven’t seen them in action but I’ve heard enough to know that they’re doing an invaluable job in the field of conservation, with particular emphasis on assisting injured and orphaned vervet monkeys. Whilst there the local troop of vervets visited the house on two occasions. My cousin and her mum feed the animals bread, oats and fruit to supplement their diets.

With the colonisation of that part of the coast by city-dwellers the natural vegetation has been cleared, altered and replaced by gardens, roads, houses, shopping malls, schools, fields and factories. Feeding them is just a means of being considerate for these free-ranging primates who are really quite entertaining. They are not aggressive although they can bite if cornered and I am surprised to read on the MH website that there has never recorded case of a rapid monkey in the city. See for example my video below and another taken by a Durban resident which shows several taking a dip in a swimming pool.

Here is a gallery of the furry creatures dining out on my aunt’s roof:

Quite remarkably I never made it down to the beach. During the week everyone was busy with their respective jobs – the family mostly works from home: my aunt on commission for a cupboard and cabinet outfit; my uncle for himself, Ellysa doing the office work – so I didn’t have the use of a car or anyone to take me down.

To be honest it didn’t bother me too much. On two occasions I walked across to the local shopping centre for odds and ends and for exercise I jogged up and down the hills a few times, an exhausting task I assure you. The rest of the time I was chatting with Mutty, Liz or Ellysa, watering the garden, swimming with the dogs in the late afternoon, discussing composting toilets and permaculture with my uncle and the like.

I should point out that I did not come directly to Durban but rather indirectly via Vryheid and Richard’s Bay. In the former resides a cousin of mine, Amy, who works as an occupational therapist at a local government hospital. She’d recently been on a workshop in Pretoria so we’d got to catch up over a drink and she’s extended the invitation for me to visit over the long Easter weekend. I went down on the Wednesday and she picked me up after work, gave me a tour of the little hospital before we headed back to her house in the suburbs.

She appeared to live a happy, independent life with 3 rescue dogs and a rescued kitten in a two bedroom cottage on a subdivided property. The owner lived in a house on the other side of a partition. In-between was a simple, two-roomed outbuilding in which the son resided. It was quickly apparent that the young man, Eugene, was besotted with my cousin. Amy possesses an air of self-assurance and a ready smile that seems to put people at ease. All of 26 she has a full head of blonde hair dyed with purple streaks in it. On her fridge was a hand-drawn picture of Queen Elsa from the Disney animation Frozen. It was a gift from Eugene who thought Amy looked just like the aloof snow-queen.

We had gone out on two successive evenings to a local bar called Ella The Greek. No surprise to learn that the proprietor was a Greek himself. In summary I can say that every male between 20-50 in the town seemed acquainted with my cousin, notwithstanding most of the women too and those who weren’t probably wanted to be. To be fair it was a typical small-town situation which put me in mind of Harare which, although substantially bigger than Vryheid,  in a social context was not much different.

The local barman Shaun served us all evening and threw in a few extra shots for the sake of it. Amy told me he was one  of the good ones who looked out for her. There was another young guy, JP, a bit of a hard luck story, who gravitated towards Amy partly out of affection but also as a ready source of ciggies. Now I have been informed that her parents are under no circumstances to learn about her habit, so if you do so happen to Mike and Jan your discretion in this matter is appreciated! Heck I am no-one to judge, puffing on a fair few myself. All the same I was a bit taken aback by the sheer number of smokers I encountered. There was barely anyone who didn’t smoke in the establishment.

On the Friday we dove down to Richard’s Bay to Amy’s folks. Her granny lived with them in the main house and I was able to move into the granny flat. Her dad Mike had built the place himself, being something of a jack of all trades. Like Steve he’s installed half-a-dozen plastic storage tanks for rainwater runoff as well as grey water from the washing machine. He claimed that his coverage was so effective (via the roofs and driveway) that it only required 5 mm of rainfall to refill all the JoJo tanks. In addition he had a swimming pool which was, he pointed out, a further 20 000 l emergency storage.


Richard’s Bay, or just R-Bay, had featured periodically in my upbringing. This was the first time I had visited in almost 14 years and the first time I’d visited without my cousins or one or other of my brothers. I’d gone down there with Ivan and my mum the year before she died and we’d gone back the following Christmas just before Ivan was to start university and I was to complete a final year at UP. The social and family dynamics had been different on that occasion.

I hadn’t really felt present if you know what I mean? It was no fault of Mike and Jan’s but it was still very reassuring to feel so welcome at the house all these years later. The addition of the granny flat aside nothing much had changed. Mike still drank cider, appeared slightly eccentric (well he is) and held forth on various issues with a strong opinion. I like him. Jan had recently retired after several decades of teaching English but was nonetheless cheerful and obliging.

I won’t write too much more except to say that I did get down to the beach. Hooray! After all those years away I was quite shocked to see how much the main bathing beach, Alkanstrand, had been eroded. The sea had cut into the previously broad expanse of sand and was in danger of undercutting the lifeguard’s hut. On the Easter Sunday I’d walked for some way along the beachfront heading north. I was impressed by the beach cliffs and the streaky black sands that are so characteristic of the area. This is not in fact oil or other pollution as one might expect at first glance but rather a concentration of heavy minerals like ilmenite and rutile, both titaniferous and commercially exploitable. I’d had a tour of the dune-mining operation of Richard’s Bay Minerals when I was an undergraduate at UP.

There’s no denying mankind’s rapacious appetite for natural commodities whether they be heavy minerals sands or the ocean’s bounty. There was an Easter fishing competition at the nearby Ski-boat club and the fishermen had hauled out quantities of rock-cod and various game-fish. Amy told me how she deplored the sight of the dead fish and I have to say that I agree after seeing the poor creatures laid out on concrete slabs by the boat ramp, their engorged swim bladders protruding from their mouths, macabre, like the tongues of drought-stricken cattle who have succumbed to thirst.

On an adjacent dredging platform some young teenagers leapt into the shallows with squeals of delight. I watched two guys snorkeling along the periphery. I’d done the same thing with Dale, a friend of Amy’s, the day before. On that occasion he’d pointed out an octopus hiding amongst the cracks in the concrete foundations. We’d let him be. Dale told me that he only took live specimens of tropical fish for his aquarium. He evidently had a big set of lungs.

Today one of the two snorkelers came out of the water gripping an octopus, whether the same one I’d seen the day before I can’t be sure. Laughing and moving the frantic creature from hand to hand he gave it to a fisherman friend on the shore. His two kids looked on in fascination as he proceeded to bash the poor creature senseless on a rock. He was doing nothing more than using it for bait. I turned away disgusted.

I love the ocean and the myriad creatures that live within but sometimes I wonder if most of us don’t just see her as another resource ripe for exploitation so that we can feed another hungry mouth or satisfy the whims of a middle-class ever keen to gorge on tasty, low-fat seafood. Such is the world we have made. It is not without hope though. I can see that there are many, like Dale, who care and understand the finite nature of the sea and her coastal resources.

An information board entitled Our Coast for Life near the car park elaborated on their importance for recreation, rural  livelihoods and biodiversity. For me the photo I took of the Indian mother and daughter standing ankle-deep in the surf, a younger member of the family frolicking at right, with a large cargo-ship entering the harbour in the background, is somewhat symbolic of the choice we have to make between exploitation and utilisation on the one hand and recreation and conservation on the other. Only time will tell where the balance lies.

Le Jardin de Verrines: a lovely little place in Deux-Sevres, Poitou-Charentes, not far from Poitiers.

I arrived at le Jardin de Verrines on a pleasantly mild Saturday afternoon, the week before last. I have been here for 8 nights now. Le Jardin de Verrines is a small-holding belonging to an unassuming gent by the name of Gerard Deremetz. Gerard originates from Paris but it is hard to picture him in an urban environment, so at ease is he in the activities which preoccupy him on the property. But what exactly is LJDV?

In a nutshell it’s a permaculture project. If you, like me, are new to the idea think sustainability, harmony, recycling and all those compellingly ‘green’ concepts people like to talk up but which few actually take the time to fully implement. You can read about it on Wiki – – or look at Gerard’s excellent site – The idea is essentially one of living harmoniously within the local environment taking into account ecology, climate, soil as well as social elements. The idea is to minimise the impact on the ecosystem of the site through raising and harvesting food plants – trees, shrubs and vegetables – alongside wild plants: no artificial chemicals or pesticides employed; All waste products recycled (that includes human waste as well).

Reading that induced a reflex recoil perhaps? Isn’t that unsanitary? After a week of using the 3 natural compost toilets allocated to me near my caravan home I can tell you that it is not the case. You do your business and afterward cover it with a few jar-fulls of sawdust. It is not immediately evident the effect the sawdust will have but after 24 hours or so it absorbs all the moisture from the excrement and the result is remarkably odourless. If necessary you can add a bit more if there is any hint of an odour and it soon vanishes.

I will be here until the weekend. This week Gerard will be showing me how to construct a rocket stove. I’ve already seen one in use this last Saturday when a few volunteers came over and helped in the garden. One of them, Katia, brought her rocket stove along and cooked up some sausages. This was achieved with a minimal amount of fuel: a few twigs and softwood off-cuts. Last week I learnt how to arc-weld. Along with another helper, Paul, a young chap employed at the town hall of neighbouring Vasles (le Mairie), we manufactured a frame to support a bicycle.

On Thursday we went to the town of Saint Fraigne in the department of Charente, about an hour’s drive away. We delivered the frame to a group whom I assumed to be in part municipal employees and in part volunteers. Gerard demonstrated the principal and after our bike was mounted on the frame and attached to an old Siemens washing machine they provided. This all took place over the course of the day. Photos of the manufucature and demonstation are shown in the gallery below in addition to an uploaded clip from my phone.

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A link to the project on Gerard’s website: Step-by-step guide to creating the ultimate green washing machine

I don’t imagine that many of you watching this will feel enthused enough to go and dismantle your washing machine at this stage! But if and when it packs up and a new appliance is beyond your reach you will at least have an idea of an alternative solution, especially if you want to enhance your green credentials and want to boost your exercise regimen!

Here is another gallery on Google Photos which shows some snaps of the garden:

In Search of My Generic Self

Extract from Taken on Trust by Terry Waite (Paperback, 2010, 496 pages, Hodder & Stoughton):

‘Why?’ someone once said to me. ‘Why do you think Europeans are so distant from Africans?’
‘Fear. They are afraid of Africa, afraid it will swallow them. It’s too vast, too mysterious, too earthy. Many Africans prefer to walk barefooted – to be in direct touch with the earth. Europeans wear shoes and cover the ground with concrete. One day Africa will be covered with concrete, and the spirits which fail to escape will be entombed forever.’
I remember standing on the bank of a lake in Buganda feeling vulnerable, frightened, alone. There is a great silence – a huge silence. The lake stretches out as far as my eyes can see. Why do I feel so vulnerable, so threatened by the magnificence of my surroundings? I sense the spirit of this place, a restless consuming spirit seeking to draw the unwary back to the earth from which they came. A small breath of wind stirs the gnarled branches of a dying tree. A wisp of woodsmoke spirals high into the sky. I smell the damp, dark atmosphere of this place, and it disturbs me.

Conceived and born in metropolitan London but raised in Africa from the tender age of several months is it any wonder that I grew up with a conflicted sense of who I was and where I belonged? It is my most sincere hope in the whole damn world – yes, MOST – that a satisfactory answer to this question will be found one day. By me? Of course that would be ideal, but not likely.

No, when I say ‘answer’ I refer to the fruits of scientific rigor married with real psychological insight: in pursuit of the ‘generic’ Leo A Passaportis. I do exist to myself and to others, perhaps quite insignificantly in the vast scheme of our universe, but significantly enough (or so I believe) to be able to conform to one generic model or another.

From what I have just written you could immediately lump me in the following category, for instance: white, British, male. To my mind that is an inadequate level of categorisation. I feel as though a lot more could be said of me.

Returning to my initial query, I believe this is in large part due to an anomaly involving place of gestation/birth and place of upbringing. (How comforting it would be to feel sufficiently defined in being called a white, British male.)

I became quite excited when I first read about the field of epigenetics. I have a feeling this emerging area of research will give us some of the answers I have long sought: Early childhood experiences can influence the brain for a lifetime [extract from Cerebrum online article, The Dana Foundation, 2011].

What I imagine would cloud the view of any would-be-researcher, were there one looking into the generic me, would be the overprint of a complex societal and familial influence. In fact just thinking about all those so-called influences makes me woozy! Yet there were some ‘symptoms’ exhibited by the younger me (<15) that might be of interest to this hypothetical researcher:

an unusual affinity for old, European architecture exhibited in buildings like the main school building at my high school, St Georges College (SGC), which gave me a very powerful sense of deja vu; a sense of clarity and unambiguity in matters of a moral sense which often left me feeling strongly at odds with sentiments of others: church, politics, racial discourse etc; and a general, difficult-to-clarify sense of just being different and, though I despised the implications, more sensitive than my peers.

I know that I wasn’t completely alone but I had so few encounters with other children who may have had similar thoughts and feelings that I can’t be sure. When I was a senior at SGC I recall a far younger boy, James Jackson, an English-raised lad who had evidently been in the country from a later age, identifying with me. I was his class prefect. I don’t know what prompted it but he confided in me that it was the worst school he had ever been to, that he felt like an outsider, alienated. It struck a chord with me.

Actually my strongest conviction from when I was still a young chap concerned environmentalism. I was a very vociferous advocate of protectionist-type conservation as was practised and advocated in Zimbabwe at that time. One of the biggest perceived threats came through the poaching of our native rhinoceros of which the country has two species, the black and the white (misnomers actually because they do not conform to a simple colour-coded distinction).

I campaigned to raise money, as many of us kids did at the time, for anti-poaching initiatives in national parks which held the majority of the animals. There was also much awareness being generated around the conservation of African elephants, under pressure from ivory-poaching regionally. But because of the geographical and practical limitations of my situation – living in the capital city, a relatively young scholar, parents who worked) – I only got out into the surrounds, the ‘bush’ as we called it, episodically.

I loved the bush and the farms that surrounded Harare, where we lived. After graduating from junior school to senior school (SGC) I decided to channel my energy as regards conservation (and nature-loving in general) towards a local initiative, the Greystone Nature Preserve. At the time we lived in Greystone Park, a doleritic suburb of Harare, and the nature preserve was actually a greenbelt and former bridal route through that part of suburbia.

Some years later I wrote an overview of my activities in the GNP in tandem with a teacher of mine, Rob Burrett, as part of a broader recollection. But that belongs in another post on my sister blog, These Archived Memories.

Returning to Mr Terry Waite and his rather prescient observation on being a European in Africa, the fact is that Africa is a land of vast spaces long removed from written history and thus undefined in the sense that much of Europe is by what happened when and where, and to whom. The African people have their oral traditions and there is the archaeological heritage as well, but it is a continent of wild places and, I would venture to say, many lonely spaces.

I found my ‘lonely space’ there in the GNP – a place I could escape to from the various strictures of my other-worldly existence. I was happy there for a while and I still ardently believe that, had I been allowed, I could have made my transition to some other lonely corner of Africa, sub-Saharan of course, perhaps a bit of farmland to call my own.

I certainly fantasised about it and the woman I would take as my wife: a complex hybrid of Catholic attributes, fortitude and beauty. There was no real-world equivalent. In retrospect it was a crazy, mad place to find myself in, in all possible ways. I’ve kept going back, again and again, looking for an answer that’s as elusive as the wind itself….

The Climate Change Paradigm

When I was child growing up in the late 80s in Zimbabwe, Africa, there was a nascent environmental movement establishing itself. This encompassed locally significant projects like community wildlife management (see the CAMPFIRE project), rhino conservation and other game conservation projects, and a wide range of ecological conservation endeavours. My imagination was fired by the conservation movement and I was eager to learn more and be involved. The prevailing mood was optimistic both regionally (a relatively peaceful  and integrated society and prosperous economy and independence for neighbouring South Africa being two that come to mind) and internationally (end of the cold war). Environmental issues did not feature prominently in the school curriculum but neither were they absent. Extra-curricular clubs like the Bundu-Bashers and Cub Scouts were a healthy outlet for urban kids like me who wanted to engage more with these issues. I also remember most households subscribing to Reader’s Digest and National Geographic Magazine (with a Junior ‘World’ edition for youngsters) which were a good source of articles. The local newspapers weren’t great but Time and Newsweek were also readily available.

One of the big topics of the day was global warming. Whilst it is still in use today, mostly by an older generation of which I guess I am one, it has largely been ursurped by that broader umbrella term, climate change. This has got me thinking, is the term global warming still applicable? I’m pretty sure it’s still bandied around in the literature but it doesn’t seem to command the same level of attention, perhaps even acceptance, than it did before. To use an oft-quoted expression there has been a paradigm shift (of sorts). The overly simplistic model of a world becoming steadily and incrementally warmer has been thrown into doubt by the most recent long-term studies which show that whilst there has been an overall temperature increase since measurements began it has been far from consistent. Apparently the latest IPCC report acknowledges this much. The term climate change was in large part a result of a growing awareness of the fact that temperature changes were only one facet of a dynamic earth. In order to better understand the impact of human-induced activity on our external environment we have mainly modelled and monitored our gaseous emissions (H2O, CO2, NOx, CH4 etc) and particulates (smoke, ash and dust). It has been assumed that the key to surviving and perpetuating our existence on this planet is to better understand the interplay between hydrosphere-atmosphere-biosphere-lithosphere i.e. water-air-life-rock. We have intervened, manipulated and exploited all four spheres to some degree but until now our principal concerns have been changes in the atmosphere and to a lesser extent the biosphere. Global warming is one aspect of atmospheric change attributed to greenhouse gas accumulation, whilst climate change encompasses other phenomena like desertification, flooding, tropical storm frequency and severity and even the possibility of negative deviations in temperatures locally or seasonally. 

The paradigm shift has been important because climate change alludes to a greater range of dynamics at play, although it still falls short of the mark. The link to conservation issues like deforestation and loss of ecological diversity is not apparent. This is possibly because of the misconception that changes in the climate affect the biosphere and not vice-versa. Also not apparent are the effects of changes to the hydrosphere. For instance, higher polar temperatures have reduced seasonal ice cover and led to changes in major ocean current circulation. This has implications for heat distribution and feedbacks into atmospheric conditions. Another aspect of the hydrosphere of major concern is the distribution and health of the world’s freshwater. Water pollution is an issue that has been in the public eye for a long while but remains an issue in many parts of the world. Groundwater exploitation is not sustainable in many places and should be a cause for major concern vis-a-vis water security and the potential for human calamity and conflict. So although the term climate change will probably remain in vogue for some time yet it’s lack of specificity will probably limit its use in a future where we are better able to quantify local changes and better understand the dynamic interplay between all aspects of our environment.

In tandem with this thought is the continued relevance of the term sustainability in all its numerous forms and appendages: sustainable development, sustainable utillization, sustainable harvesting etc). In many ways sustainability has come to usurp the word conservation in the last 20 years probably because of the increased realisation that human interference in most instances is unavoidable and that some sort of balance needs to be attained whereby the environment or ecosystem can remain functional whilst we continue to exploit it. Conservation in its most literal form is a hands off approach to maintaining or restoring a natural ecosystem, species or groups of species. At least that’s what the word suggests to me. Sustainability will probably continue to maintain traction for some time yet because of the human consideration. Nevertheless I think the word is also a consequence of our collective sense of conflict when it comes to deciding our place in the world. Only when we can move to a socio-economic situation where we our resources are not limiting will we be able to shift the paradigm. Furthermore we need to see ourselves as being integral to the perpetuation, remediation and creation of present and future environments and ecosystems. If we empower ourselves to act in a way that not only ensures our survival but the continued health and diversity of our planet we can shift the paradigm from sustainability to creativity. We are, after all, great modifiers and not ones for maintaining the status quo.

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) (