Traditional medicine at odds with conservation

The crisis of rhinocerous poaching

Environmental watchdog groups are concerned by increasing rates of rhino poaching. In this article, Catherine Tomlinson discusses the quackery behind rhino poaching and how it is putting the future of these magnificent animals at risk.

Rhinocerous libation cup 17th-18th century
Rhino horns are also valued as art pieces. This is a rhino horn libation cup from the 17th-18th century. Source
The most common traditional medicine use of rhino horn is to treat fever.

Over the past few years environmental watchdog groups have raised alarm over the increasing rates of rhino poaching. This month the release of a documentary entitled Horn of Africa and a cover story in the popular Time magazine further exposed the brutalities of the rhino poaching crisis that is driven by the demand for horns in traditional Asian medicines.

South Africa and Zimbabwe have been the hardest hit by the crisis. Between 2000 and 2007, only about a dozen rhinos were poached each year in South Africa.1 But in 2010 and 2011, South Africa has been losing almost a rhino a day to poaching. 333 rhinos were illegally killed in 2010 and 181 have already been killed this year.2 Their deaths are violent and images difficult to view. In the clip below, a rhino in the Eastern Cape is severely injured after having its horn hacked off by poachers. Despite efforts by vets and rangers, this rhino’s life could not be saved.

In the week that I spent researching this article, six rhinos were reported killed. And in the few days from submitting this article for editing to publication a further seven were reported. Black rhinos are critically endangered and white rhinos are near threatened according to the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Rangers and farmers have expressed despair at the sophistication of poachers, making it very difficult to contain the crisis. Groups carrying out poaching are referred to as illegal crime syndicates. They often involve ex-military men, skilled hunters, veterinarians and rangers that use expensive equipment such as helicopters, night vision goggles, and tranquilizers. A syndicate of 10 people involving professional hunters and two veterinarians is facing trial in Limpopo for mass poaching during 2010.

Environmental watchdog group The Wildlife Trade and Monitoring Network (TRAFFIC) investigated trade routes, revealing that most horns were destined for China and Vietnam to be ground and used in traditional Asian medicines.3

This is consistent with trade data from earlier years. East African export data shows that between 1949 and 1976, the horns of 16,500 rhinos were exported, of which 40% were sent to Hong Kong.4

Traditional Asian medicines commonly use animal parts in the composition of remedies. Rhino horns have been used in traditional Chinese medicines since 200BC.5 Current remedies recommend using rhino horn to treat a range of diseases – most commonly dispelling heat (fevers). It is a myth that rhino horns are commonly used in Asia as aphrodisiacs.

The horns of a rhino are composed almost entirely of keratin (a protein found in human skin, hair and nails) with deposits of calcium and melanin in the center.6

The belief that rhino horns are able to dispel heat is explained by scientists at the Department of Biology and Chinese Medicinal Material Research Centre at the Chinese University of Hong Kong:

A very fundamental approach in Chinese medicine in analysing the syndromes of an ailment is to differentiate them according to the ‘eight cardinals’: yin, yang, outside, inside, empty, full, coldsel and hot... in Chinese medicine, the term ‘fever’ covers not only a rise in body temperature but also a patient’s subjective feeling of heat within his body... herbal materials are noted to have such properties as four essences, five flavors and four directions of action. The four essences are cold, hot, cool and warm. A cold drug alleviates yang diseases, inflammation or hyperemia, and various fevers... Accordingly, rhinoceros horn, classified as a cold drug, is indicated for hot diseases. However, it is applied only when heat is trapped deep in the body in the areas of ying and XUQ, to help clean and detoxify the blood... Obviously, the conceptual function of rhinoceros horn in Chinese medicine is more far-reaching than just subsiding fever.7

These scientists at the Chinese University of Hong Kong carried out a study on the antiphyretic (fever-reducing) effects of rhino horn on rats. They found that horn is able to reduce fevers in rats, but only at doses far higher than prescribed in traditional medicine.8To curb the killing of rhinos for traditional medicine, other scientists have rebutted claims that rhino horns have any medicinal properties. In 1983, a study was undertaken by Hoffman-LaRoche at the request of the World Wildlife Federation and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The study ‘found no evidence that rhino horn has any medicinal effect.’9Dr Raj Amin of the Zoological Society of London, who demonstrated that the species and origin of the rhino could be identified from analysing their horn, further stated that ‘there is no evidence that any constituents of rhino horn have any medical property’. 10

In 1993 trade sanctions were put in place prohibiting commercial trading of rhino horns in an effort to end the killing of endangered rhinos for traditional medicine. At this time China also banned the use of the horns for medicinal purposes and removed them from the country’s official pharmacopoeia. Yet demand for rhino horns remains unabated with new consumer markets opening. As a group of researchers have explained, “These legislative or administrative actions are meaningful, but they take little action to modify the beliefs already deeply ingrained in the cultures of traditional medicines. Practitioners and consumers of herbal medicines using rhinoceros horn swear by it.”11

The recent surge in poaching has been linked to a new myth widely spread in Vietnam that rhino horn is able to cure cancer12 as well as sanctions preventing the legal trade of horns.

The investigation by Time magazine revealed alarming plans within China to start farming rhinos for their horns. Between 2006 and 2009, 121 rhinos were imported into China from South Africa. The investigation revealed that one company initially promoted as a future tourism destination was actually set up ‘to provide our pharmaceutical industry raw materials, the company had built an endangered animals breeding station.’ The investigation also unveiled a patent application for a device called a 'self-suction living rhinocerous-horn scraping tool'.13

Rhinos are not the only animal threatened by belief in the mystical healing properties of certain animal parts. Traditional Asian medicine demand for animal body parts has also fuelled illegal poaching of endangered tigers14 and bears15.

An IOL article in January reported that rhino horns are worth more than their weight in gold, 'The price of rhino horns, which weigh 7kg on average, has increased to R400 000 a kilogram, outpacing gold for the first time in a decade. In London yesterday gold fixed at $1 345.50 an ounce, or R305 824 a kilogram.'16

An internet search for 'anti-rhino poaching campaign' reveals numerous campaigns targeted at the western audience, but very little targeted at endangered animal consumer countries.17 Wide-scale education campaigns should be launched by conservation groups in Asia to combats the belief that rhino horns contain medicinal properties and highlight the devastation of poaching.

You can donate to rhino conservation efforts by going to the following sites:



1  H Beech and A Perry. “Killing Fields: How Asia’s growing appetite for traditional medicine is threatening Africa’s rhinos” Time Vol. 177, No. 24 (June 2011)


3  T Milliken et al. “African and Asian Rhinoceroses – Status Conservation and Trade. A report from the IUCN Species Survival Commission (IUCN/SSC) African and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups and TRAFFIC to the CITES Secretariat pursuant to Resolution Conf. 9.14 (Rev CoP14) and Decision 14.89.” (20 November 2009)

4  S Mainka and J Mills. “Wildlife and Traditional Chinese Medicine: Supply and Demand” Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine Vol 26 No 2. (June 1995)

5  P But et al. “Ethnopharmacology of Rhinoceros Horn. I: Antipyretic Effects of Rhinocerous Horn and Other Animal Horns” Journal of Ethnopharmacology (1990)

6  Ohio University.“Scientists Crack Rhino Horn Riddle” ScienceDaily (11 November 2006).

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9  The Environmentalist. “Yemen acts to halt rhino horn daggers: scientific tests fail to show rhino horn effective as medicine” Vol 3 No 2 (1983).


11  P But et al. “Ethnopharmacology of Rhinoceros Horn. I: Antipyretic Effects of Rhinocerous Horn and Other Animal Horns” Journal of Ethnopharmacology (1990).

12 TRAFFIC –The Wildlife Trade and Monitoring Network. “Lid lifted on Vietnamese Rhino horn trade” (May 2011).

13 H Beech and A Perry. “Killing Fields: How Asia’s growing appetite for traditional medicine is threatening Africa’s rhinos” Time Vol. 177, No. 24. (June 2011)

14 TRAFFIC. “Tigers – an iconic species in danger of extinction” Available at

15 TRAFFIC. “Illegal bear bile rampant in Asia” Available at

16 See

17 This search is limited by the author's own language barriers.


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