This might be a confusing headline, since rhinoceros horns sell for more money than gold or cocaine by weight. Something that expensive would seem valuable. However, the demand and price stems from mistaken beliefs in the magical medicinal properties within the horn. These beliefs are responsible for illegal rhino poaching, which leading to a devastation in the rhinoceros population by 90% in the last 40 years.

Despite their huge demand and market value, a rhino horn will not cure any human ailment. But supporting the trade by purchasing products derived from rhino horns, such as those used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, supports a host of other atrocities. In Africa and Asia, poachers illegally shoot and kill these animals and their calves just for their relatively small facial ornament. Sometimes they’ll kill the animal, and sometimes they will wound it, hack off their horns, and then leave the rhino to die. The situation has gotten so severe that the military has been enlisted as armed guards to protect the animals, and it’s still not looking good.

What do people who buy these believe about the horns?

Traditional Chinese Medicine, which has seen a resurgence as a “natural” and “holistic” alternative to western medicine, prescribes rhino horn almost indiscriminately as a cure-all. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners that the horn will prevent convulsions, cure your fever, make you slim, and ward off demons and spirits. In Vietnam, there is a rumor that the horn will cure cancer, which is linked to the complete extirpation of rhinos from the country.

Why do they believe horns will cure their ails?

Clinical trials with a control are used to test Western medicine, and before these drugs are approved by the FDA, they must go through a rigorous screening process which can take years to complete. Traditional medicine often rejects these trials as inconsequential, favoring belief and history. The fact that certain remedies have been used and revered for thousands of years, however, does not mean that the remedies will work, nor have they ever.

In the book “Bad Science,” Ben Goldacre explains various reasons that people are fooled by ineffective forms of medicine. If someone is suffering from an ailment and they use a treatment that is inherently ineffective, they may see results due to the placebo effect, in which the very thought of the patient getting treatment will make them believe that they are getting better. Regression to the mean can also affect how someone perceives results, because many symptoms will simply subside naturally, and the improvement may be wrongly attributed to whatever method the patient has most recently used. There are countless reasons that anecdotal evidence can fool even the smartest people, but it is important not to trust anyone who wants to sell you something without scientific evidence that it will help, especially when that remedy has been disproven.

What are rhino horns made of?

Mostly a hard-to-digest protein. Keratin is a protein that makes up your nails and hair, and the outer covering of goat and antelope horns, among other things. Most of the rhino’s horn is made out of that. If you were to eat a whole rhino horn, you might get a little more protein for a day or two, but it’d be more efficient to chew on your own nails, or eat the sweepings of hair from a barber shop, if you’re really looking for that type of protein.

There is also a concentration of melanin and calcium in the middle. Melanin is what makes skin dark to protect it from UV rays, and calcium is in milk.

To increase your melanin, just go out in the sun for a while; your body will respond to that by creating more and darkening your skin. For calcium, try a supplement or dairy products (from an organic, Humane-society monitored local dairy farm of course.) All of these are cheaper, more efficient, and much more ethical.

What will consumption do for me?

Nothing. Rhino horns have been subjected to clinical trials and have failed to produce results as a remedy for anything.

What is prescribed by TCM as a dose of rhino horn powder is too small to effect anything; and won’t even improve your protein intake. And if you’re hoping that consuming a rhino horn is going to ward off maligned spirits, I think that contributing to the death of an innocent animal might leave you more haunted than before.

Shouldn’t we just respect alternative beliefs?

Nope. No, we should not. People act on beliefs, and if those beliefs are false and harmful, then they must be called out, challenged, criticized and laughed at. Burning witches alive is an ancient and alternative belief, should we nod and respect anyone who wants to do that?

Queuing “ancient wisdom” means nothing, and certainly does not exonerate poaching or supporting poaching. An idea that takes lives and is not supported by science or ethics should not be respected because it is not respectable. It’s offensive.

It can’t hurt, right?

It does hurt. It hurts anyone who spends their money on it, it hurts our investment in wildlife protection. It hurts anyone who could be using real medicine to treat their ills, but instead put faith in alternative methods, and it hurts children whose parents insist on using the fake cure. Most saliently, it hurts the animals that are killed and mutilated for their parts. It hurts all the calves who have been orphaned as they watched their mothers get shot for their facial ornament, and it hurts the people who have been injured while trying to protect the animals.It can’t help, but it does hurt.

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