Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Rhino Horn and Bling

-->In my post of 17th August I referred to a fine piece of undercover detective work carried out by Karl Amman. It is titled Hanoi Connection, The Rhino Horn Mafia. In this 26 minute video he shows how the rhino horn trade has exploded and gone mainstream in Hanoi. So much so that there are large quantities of false horn now available on the market as demand has grown. 
I had thought that this was driven by the TCM market, with the added extra component of an alleged used for dealing with hangovers and so-called rhino horn parties at which the stuff is ground on specially designed plates, suspended in fluid and drunk.

Of course this moves the use of the horn into the conspicuous consumption field, and Karl has very recently taken his investigation a lot further. 

Rhino horn is now used as bling

His full story is up on his website and will also appear in the East Africna Wildlife Society's flagship magazine Swara. For lovers of wildlife stories, and an edgy apporoach to today's issues, you could not do better than subscribe. Here are a couple of Karl's pictures from the bling story.

A horn shop in Hanoi at left and a
 transaction underway at right

I decided to find out a bit more about bling and of course the first place to look was on Google. I knew it is a word that has only come into the lexicon in recent times. I had not realized how recent. One source states that it is of Jamaican origin and was first used by the Silvertones in their December 2002 song Bling Bling Christmas.

It is such a good word that it is now in common use throughout the English-speaking world. Various definitions are offered. A simple one is Flash and sparkle; glamour. Another puts it this way: The word "bling" refers to any unnecessary accumulation of metal or jewellery which impresses the simple-minded.

I fell to thinking about bling in a wider context. Of course there are plenty of recent references to things like fancy engagement rings and so on, but the truth is that humans were using bling long before it became a word. 

Witness the widespread used of animal parts by people all over the world for who knows how long.

Joy Adamson’s fascinating 1967 book The Peoples of Kenya has dozens of her photos and paintings showing tribesmen dressed in an extraordinary array of skins, feathers, bones and horns. Many of the original works have been shown in Nairobi’s National Museum, once known as the Coryndon Museum.

Ostrich feathers were not only worn by Kenyan and other African warriors. They became a fashion statement for western women and ostrich famers of the late 19th and very early 20th centuries profited mightily. Then came the motorcar. Most cars were open to the elements and the industry took a hit. 

In my copy of the 1982 The Elk of North America is a picture of a beautiful young girl of the Dakota Sioux Nation nation who is wearing a ceremonial dress covered in approximately 1700 canine teeth (aka bugle teeth) of a wapiti.

Some of the tribesmen of Papua New Guinea are famous for wearing all sorts of bling. Perhaps the most well-known are the bones through their nasal septa and the Koteka or penis sheath worn by many, mainly highland, tribes. 

Last weekend my wife and I watched a PBS movie made by Ken Burns. It is titled The National Parks: America's Best Idea and tells a remarkable story. The bling issue arose there as well, in a way I knew nothing about. A hundred and ten years ago egrets in the Florida Everglades were shot in unimaginable numbers - 5 million a year. All the feathers, and some whole birds, were used to decorate women's hats! 
"Wanda in wild feathers." A photo from the early 1900s

Almost 95% of the species were wiped out and the feathers for the hats had to be obtained during the nesting season.

The movie’s narrator recounts how a naturalist, going for a stroll in New York, saw 542 feathered hats with material from 40 different species.

Numerous attempts were made to halt the slaughter and an Audubon Society campaign failed. Only when a government congressman named John F Lacey got something done did things improve! 

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Is the use of rhino horn bracelet worn opposite a $15,000 Rolex watch (and costing about as much) just the latest manifestation of an ancient human trait?

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.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Lion's False Teeth

Last week I received a copy of an email sent to the Saskatoon Zoo Society, of which I was a member for many years in the 70s and 80s. A 14 year-old boy in Winnipeg explained how he has been told stories by his grandad about a lion. As Zachary wrote it “He used to be a professor of dentistry at the University of Saskatchewan during the 70’s and 80’s. He always used to tell me how you came to him seeking his help to make the world’s first set of dentures for a lion.

That was not quite how I recalled the case, but I have the advantage of a set of photos taken that day and a short article I wrote for the Journal of Zoo Animal Medicine (as it was in those days).

George (the lion) lived in a small enclosure at the Forestry Farm Zoo in Saskatoon. When I arrived in the city from Kenya in 1975 there had not been any sort of veterinary program there and no animals had ever been vaccinated for anything. This is only relevant to George the lion’s situation because he hated me with a passion. After only one injection, given when a keeper fed him some meaty tidbits through the page wire fence, he would not let me near him. He recognized me at a distance, even when I tried to disguise myself. On one occasion he even picked me out in a crowd when I took my family to the zoo and carried my then two-year-old son on my shoulders. He must surely have recognized my face, as my gait and shape would have been markedly altered that day.

So, when the keepers told me that George was off his feed, and had only been toying with the fresh chunks of meat and bone that he had been tempted with over the last couple of days, I knew we had to take action. With some planning we tricked the old lion. I went over to this pen, so of course he promptly headed to the other side, as far away from me as possible. Little did he know it but he was now in range for Stu, one of the team, to use my blowgun and get a drug cocktail into him.

Within a few minutes he was out cold so we could think about entering his pen, but not before checking that Queenie, the lioness with which he spent his days, was safely locked in the shelter. That part was simple, but we still took it very carefully. The first step was to bounce a rock of his backside. No reaction. On closer approach we could poke a long stick at his side. Still no reaction. 
Essential eye protection
 I checked his heart and breathing and then had a look at his mouth. 

Sore mouth, broken teeth. No wonder he was off his feed.
It was easy to see what the problem was. He had three broken canine teeth, the big ones that a lion uses to kill his prey. Two of them had nasty-looking pus-like material oozing out. No wonder he was of his feed. He must have been hurting.

I at once knew that I need some help with this one. By lunchtime I was back in my office at the WesternCollege of Veterinary Medicine and I had had an excited response after my call to the dental college across campus. Two mornings later we were back at the zoo. By we, I mean me and three dentists. This is almost certainly two more dentists than were actually needed, but it is not every day that a chance like this would arise. Indeed one of them has been telling his grandson about the case some thirty-five years later.

Immobilization was much easier this time because the keeper staff had shut Queenie out of the shelter and George was within easy reach for his injection. The dental team soon had a cast made of George’s mouth and promised to get everything done as soon as possible. They began to discuss idea for making up a set of metal crowns. 

A wild lion with a broken tooth, in this case an incisor
We discussed the whys and wherefores of how George had broken his teeth. I had seen broken teeth in wild lions, and had learned that this was sometimes caused by biting at a hard bone, but it is a rare event. In George’s case it was almost certainly due to his biting at the wires around his cage and catching the rear, concave surfaces of his teeth. When he pulled back they got stuck and could break off. Apparently this was a recognized hazard for lions in captivity. 

Our third immobilization, for a much longer procedure, took place a few days later. Again, George was easy to approach in his shelter and the routines were simple.  
Out of the pen, off to the trailer
I checked his heart and breathing, and pretty soon we were carrying him to a waiting flatbed trailer where I administered some eye drops to protect his corneas and we put a towel over his head. From there we shifted a very sleepy lion into the zoo van and headed to the college. Once there another team joined us—the anesthesia team. These were the folks who would have to keep both George and all the people safe for a couple of hours. We did not exactly want him waking up mid-surgery!

Pipe cleaners do have other uses!
At this point I was more-or-less supernumerary. The dentists took over for the root canal procedure, for that is what was needed. Not just on one tooth, but on three. They had come fully prepared. None of their usual delicate instruments was going to be of much use. To clean out the infected tooth roots they used coping saw blades that they had picked up at a hardware store. Flushing the mess out of the root canals was easier. Instead of their normal fine equipment they used large veterinary needles, there was no shortage of those around. To dry everything up they had sterilized a whole bunch of pipe cleaners.

The brand new caps in place on the casts. Perfect fit!
Now came the really clever bit. The dentists had designed stainless steel tooth caps that had no concave surfaces. If George got at the wires again the teeth would simply slip off as he pulled.

With the canals and teeth dry and clean it was simply a case of applying the right sort of cement, albeit in much large quantities than any previous human patient, inserting the pins into the channels and letting everything dry.

Ready to roll! No chewing problems now.
George soon adapted to his new finery. His appetite returned, and he lived on for quite a few more trouble-free years. There was a brief interlude of an idea to rename him Jaws, after the nasty guy played by Richard Dawson Kiel in the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me. That did not last.

A display item at the WCVM
George’s skull, with teeth in place, is now a part of the collection of bones and other bits in the WCVM’s anatomy department. The unusual skull appears every now and again on special display days. They were never strictly dentures, as Zachary has been told, but at the time they were indeed the world’s only set of capped lion’s teeth.

A favourite photo from the Serengeti. I did not chekc the teeth too closely, but they looked fine