The poaching of Africa’s rhinoceros population continues to make headline news. We are only halfway through 2012 and already the number of rhino killed illegally is pushing close to the 300 mark. Rhino horn is estimated to reach up to $80,000/Kg on the black market at the moment making poaching an extremely profitable pastime. Rhino horns are even being stolen from museums! The horn is sent to countries such as Vietnam and China where it is prized as an important ingredient in traditional medicines, the increase in poaching in recent years seems to be linked to a claim that rhino horn can cure cancer. Other traditional medicinal uses include treating fever, rheumatism, gout, and other disorders. According to the 16th century Chinese pharmacist Li Shi Chen, the horn could also cure snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning, and “devil possession.” (However, it is not, as commonly believed, prescribed as an aphrodisiac).
Unlike the horns of most animals, which have a bony core covered by a relatively thin layer of keratin, rhino horns are keratin all the way through — although the precise chemical composition of the keratin will vary depending on a rhino’s diet and geographic location. Rhino horns are not, as once believed, made simply from a clump of compressed or modified hair. Recent studies have shown that the horns are, in fact, similar in structure to horses’ hooves, turtle beaks, and cockatoo bills. The studies also revealed that the centres of the horns have dense mineral deposits of calcium and melanin — a finding that may explain the curve and sharp tip of the horns. The calcium would strengthen the horn while the melanin would protect the core from being degraded by ultraviolet radiation from the sun. As the softer outer portion was worn away over time by the sun and typical rhino activities (bashing horns with other animals, or rubbing it on the ground), the inner core would be sharpened into a point (much like a wooden pencil).
As far as actual scientific proof of any medicinal value to the horn goes, there is nothing, in fact even the government of China have gone as far as signing the CITES treaty banning the sale of rhino horn, and removing rhinoceros horn from the Chinese medicine pharmacopeia, administered by the Ministry of Health, in 1993. In 2011 in the UK, the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine issued a formal statement condemning the use of rhinoceros horn.A growing number of Traditional Chinese Medicine educators have also spoken out against the practice.
Despite all this the demand for horn remains high, fuelling the poaching crisis we are experiencing. 2012 has seen a large number of arrests in South Africa, yet the crisis continues…