Clarissa Hughes

Rhino Remedies

As rhino continue to be slaughtered for their horn the debate on how to prevent this rages on. All kinds of radical solutions are put forward, which makes for healthy debate, but when it clouds the true nature of the problem it can be downright destructive.

Many of these ideas suggest that there is a silver bullet that will stop the carnage. The problem is too vast and wide for such a quick fix.

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) rhino horn is used to treat (my emphasis) inflammatory disorders, fevers and other ailments associated with toxicity and bodily heat generation. The President of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ACTCM) and Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (CCAOM), Lixin Huang, says it is used in the treatment of fevers and carbuncles. It is also now being touted as a cure for cancer.

Since 1993 the use of rhino horn in TCM has been banned by the People’s Republic of China – a ban that has clearly been ineffective, like the CITES ban on the trade in horn. So if top-down bans don’t work perhaps we should look elsewhere?

What drives the demand? Clearly it is a traditional belief system in a part of the world that is emerging from centuries of relative isolation. Most people will tell you that cultures are difficult, if not impossible, to change. And yet I don’t think there is an informed person on this planet who hasn’t been surprised at the speed with which China has progressed from its ‘dark age’, embracing capitalism, consumerism and industrialisation with a fervour that is almost daemonic. The same applies to Vietnam, a country that has surfaced after decades of war and political repression, hungry for its share of globalisation’s pickings.

So why would these cultures not embrace Western medicine? Is it that Western medicine is so clearly inferior? Or is it that they have little experience of, or hindered access to, Western medicine? Niall Ferguson calls Western medicine a ‘killer app’ that has changed the world.

We see from the above that rhino horn is used as a treatment rather than a preventative. If Western treatments for inflammation and fevers were readily and cheaply available to Chinese consumers wouldn’t they embrace them as quickly as they have grasped the benefits of other aspects of the West? The same applies to cancer treatments.

I would like to know if any of the large pharmaceutical companies (domestic, international or state-owned) have explored the roll-out of anti-inflammatories in China. And, if so, what are their experiences and obstacles if any?

Their observations would be pertinent to pharmaceutical alternatives for other illegal substances used in TCM e.g. tiger and lion bones.

However, TCM seems to the least of the rhino’s problems, as the situation is rapidly changing. It is now reported that organised crime is playing an increasing role in the crisis and that the ownership of whole horns has become a status symbol.

The West is well acquainted with status symbols – a penchant the Chinese have exploited ingeniously with their copies of famous brands. Surely someone could start making fake rhino horn? It can’t be terribly difficult.

The advent of organised crime on the scene adds a sinister tone – one that we should be conscious of.

One idea being mooted is to reverse the CITES ban and allow the trade in rhino horn. I’ve written before about it here. This idea allows for a central selling organisation (CSO) to control the trade. It does not take much imagination to realise that the CSO would be a prime target for organised crime and its skills of persuasion. One could even go so far as to argue that organised crime would welcome the resumption of trade given the fact that a CSO would make its life easer. To date no-one has been able to show how one would prevent illegitimate horn getting laundered and mixed-up with legal horn.

Yet there are fundamental sea changes occuring in Asian society which point to the solutions for the problem. One is the rise of Christianity in China. Estimates put the number of practicing Christians in China at between 60 and 130 million in 2010. In some regions churches are being built at a greater rate than factories. Considering there were only half a million in 1949 this number is remarkable. Why the sudden appeal?

Christianity is thriving in China because it offers an ethical framework to people struggling to cope with a startlingly fast social transition from communism to capitalism. In the words of one Chinese scholar from Academy of Social Sciences: “The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”

Chinese academic, Zhuo Xinping, adds: “Only by accepting this understanding of transcendence as our criterion can we understand the real meaning of such concepts as freedom, human rights, tolerance, equality, justice, democracy, the rule of law, universality, and environmental protection.” (my emphasis).

Perhaps the distribution of the Green Bible would be a way to speed up the process of enlightenment.

What we need is a coherent strategy, one that considers all aspects of the problem and envisages consequences, both long term and short term. We must also ensure that remedies are appropriate to the rapid changes occurring in the buyer countries.

A net of actions – including better policing, greater punishments for transgressors, the availability of effective alternatives to TCM, together with educational programmes on the value of biodiversity – is required.  Above all political will, both here and in the East, is needed.

This issue is bigger than the rhino. It’s about protecting Africa’s heritage. It’s about not being a doormat. It’s about leading the way to enlightenment.

What rhino don’t need are quaint remedies that serve the interests of a small group by reducing the problem to a simple cause.


Reference:  “Civilization – the West and the Rest”, Niall Ferguson, Allen Lane, 2011 



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