Saturday, August 17, 2013

Rhino horn's long tradtion in TCM

I have been writing about the war between humans and wildlife, and specifically the rhino wars for at least ten years.

With 536 rhinos killed in South Africa by the end of July, it seems highly likely that the death toll for the year will surpass 2012′s shocking 668 and may even reach 1,000. At this point the kill may exceed the number of calves born.

It is very clear that whatever policing efforts are made, and however much pressure is brought to bear by almost anyone, the consumption of rhino horn in the Orient for medicinal purposes is not going to stop. It has been going on for centuries and some populations of rhino have collapsed because of it.

There were rhino in many parts of southern China until at least the 15th century. They are long gone, all victims of the insatiable consumption of TCM products. Black rhino numbers have plummeted since I worked on them in the 1960s and 1970s. Where there were once as many as 20,000 members of this species in Kenya there are perhaps 600 today. Africa’s total 2013 black rhino population is thought to be about 6,000. 

It is not just China and Vietnam. In The Trouble With Lions I cited one example, among many of this attitude. I quoted a 1993 TRAFFIC (Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce) report by Judy Mills in which she wrote that 60% of Korean doctors believe that horn is an effective medication and 79% say that it is essential for a wide variety of ailments.

On top of that 20-year old report has come the claim of its efficacy in the treatment of some forms of cancer, it’s effectiveness for hangovers (suggested to be a “Ferrari” effect) and very recently the claim that it is an aphrodisiac. This last was only ever a factor in India’s state of Gujarat and a small tribe in Uganda. It was misrepresented in western media (sex sells!) and I would bet that the same snake-oil salesman who dreamed up the cancer thing found yet another way to market his product in the Orient.

There has been a tremendous upsurge in control methods in several parts of Africa, especially in South Africa, where some 75% of rhinos are located. Most of these are in the Kruger National Park, and it is along the park’s long and porous border with Mozambique that many of the poachers operate, slipping back into their home country with impunity. There have been recent suggestions by enforcement agencies that so-called “hot pursuit” may be permitted, but it will require the agreement of the two countries to make it happen.

The bottom line – nobody is ever going to completely stop the rhino horn trade with enforcement. As people get richer the demand will increase.

This is surely in part because of cultural biases that may not be well understood by Westerners.

A telling new documentary filmed and produced by Karl Amman takes a look at the issue. It is 26 minutes long, but well worth the time.

The attitude of many, perhaps a large majority, of Chinese people and others in Southeast Asia is that animals were put on earth for the use of humans. 
Tiger parts and deer antler velvet on sale in a Chinese pharmacy

Why then would anyone in that part of the world be bothered if rhino (and many other species) are killed, eaten and used in other ways. Witness the relentless killing of tigers documented by John Vaillant in his book Tiger.  


On a stopover in Beijing in 2008 I happened upon a copy of the English edition of the China Daily News and was astonished to read of one tiger farm where some 500 of the animals are bred for TCM use. Digging further led me to a 1994 article in the Vancouver sun on this same topic. Lion bones are now an export item from hunt farms in South Africa.

Of course the Chinese are not the only people who believe that we humans have the right to use animals in any way we choose. There is a mistranslation in the bible’s book of Genesis. In 1989 Michael W. Fox put the record straight.

"While in the book of Genesis we read that man has God-given dominion over the rest of creation, the original meaning of the word dominion is not to have power over and exploit all of life for our own ends.  The original meaning of dominion comes from the Hebrew root verb 'yorade', which means literally to come down to, to live in sympathy, respect and harmony with other creatures."
Michael W. Fox —, Steps Toward a Humane, Sustainable Agriculture, 1989 [HSUS MS, p 8].

It is not as if the use of animal parts is confined to oriental people. In his book Tiger Bone & Rhino Horn Richard Ellis has done an extraordinary amount of research and recounts some of the text of one Thomas Culpeper’s 17th century catalogue in Culpeper's Complete Herbal: A Book of Natural Remedies for Ancient IllsHe lists over 150 animals parts that apothecaries (the pharmacists of their day) had to stock. Among the most bizarre to 21st century eyes were:
“The fat, grease, or suet of a duck, goose, eel, boar, heron, thymallows (if you know where to get it) and over twenty other creatures including a vulture (if you can catch them).” I Googled thymallows as I have no idea what that might be. The site took me back to Culpeper and I am none the wiser.

Culpeper also lists “the horn of an elk, a hart, a rhinoceros, and unicorn, the skull of a man killed by a violent death…

If for no other reason than curiosity the Culpeper’s list, and others about how to make up prescriptions, are worth a read.

The point is that western medicine was no different in concept that that of the orient just a few hundred years ago. In fact the separation was very recent, and is by no means complete.

Western Medicine only began to leap in a different direction after penicillin began to be available for general use.  The first time it was used clinically was in 1938. A few years before that the sulfonamides were developed and specific serums might help fight an infection - as long as the doctors chose the right serum. Before then doctors had to rely on a variety of remedies that owed as much to faith as to science. An interesting take on the changes in our medical practices, by no mean all to the good, is given by Atul Gawander in a New Yorker blog of May 2011.

For the rhino horn issue Members of the South African Game Ranching community are touting another option. This is to legalize the trade.  There is serious discussion in the South African parliament about this matter.

On July 3rd this year Edna Molewa, South Africa’s Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs told reported that her country “cannot continue to be held hostage by the syndicates slaughtering our rhinos…The establishment of a well-regulated international trade” could help curb rhino poaching, she said.

More on this controversial subject in my next post.

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