29 September 2010

Rhino horn: the real dilemma

With laws in place and authorities willing to enforce them, Joanne Hart wants to know why rhinos are still being butchered for their horns.

On Tuesday 21 September a diver, allegedly poaching perlemoen, was attacked by a great white shark close to Dyer Island, Gansbaai.

In the same week, South Africa discovered that the trail of slaughtered and disfigured rhinos across the Limpopo province were, allegedly, the grisly work of a poaching syndicate now under investigation. Among those arrested were two veterinarians. And all this is about a 5kg horn that comprises, basically, tightly-packed hair, and a shellfish.

An odd thing to die for
Why are people dying and going to prison for horn and mollusks? Because, according to some traditions, when these articles are dried and crushed, they operate as powerful medications and act as aphrodisiacs. 

My question is: if there's such a strong belief that rhino horn, abalone, tiger body parts and bear paws contain medicinal value, why aren't the nations held captive by these traditions isolating these healing compounds in laboratories and coming up with useful synthetic versions?

An unhealthly mindset

Hippocrates had a lot of high ideas about medicine (Greek, 460BC, known in the West as the Father of Medicine), and one of the greatest gifts he brought the world was the concept of questioning the spiritual/mental/traditional understanding of illness and cure.

Right up to medieval times you could find cures being sold in markets, and by apothecaries, that would have made rhino horn and abalone feel quite at home. But Hippocrates had started a trend which monks and physicians pursued, and it led people away from the sort of medicine that had them rubbing cats in the moonlight or kissing frogs to rid themselves of warts.  

For example: it was his observation that a certain substance in willow-bark alleviated pain. In 1829 scientists isolated a real compound called salicin in willow plants which gave pain relief.

The tie-in with rhino horn? Well, every time you need an Aspirin, you don't have to peel a willow tree. A long line of people over a long line of years researched, isolated and synthesized the active ingredient (acetylsalicylic acid ), and we have a tablet that doesn't harm any willow trees. If rhino horn, tiger and bear parts, abalone and other species contain real medicinal properties, we're technologically advanced enough to isolate those ingredients and synthesise them in laboratories. Unless it's all a myth.

Apparently the Dark Ages didn't end for everyone

And that's where it gets doubly dark. Besides the wanton destruction of animal populations that will never bounce back, there is a very real risk to the health of rhino horn imbibers. We now know that erectile dysfunction (ED) is often a valuable warning sign for serious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. Rather than warding off ED with unproven animal-part cures, men should be encouraged to visit their doctors for a check up. 

And before anyone says that these men have to use exotic 'cures' as they cannot afford to visit a doctor, it's my understanding that a dose of powdered rhino horn doesn't come cheap – there's no way poaching syndicates operate so that someone can hand out free pinches of rhino horn on street corners to droopy passersby.

It's my (unresearched) understanding that many governments have made the trade in tiger parts and rhino horn illegal, but until the minds of citizens are changed, the laws just make these 'cures' more expensive and a lot more tantalising.

Read more:

Join the Rhino Wars

Monstrous medieval medicines

(Joanne Hart, September 2010)


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