Does Rhino Horn Make You Horny?
As the sun sets on 2010, the year South Africa hosted the Fifa World Cup with great success, the country is faced by a scourge of senseless murders. I’m not talking about the almost 17,000 murders of humans in the country last year, I’m referring to the 318 (308 White and 10 Black) rhinos that were murdered for the lump of keratin on the end of their faces. This wave of poaching comes at an especially unfortunate time, just as the animal’s populations were starting to recover from being hunted to within a horn’s breadth of extinction.
As terrifying as this is (I am not a fan of extinction events – except maybe the dinosaurs), I’m not writing this article to address the poaching itself. I would like to try and straighten up a few of the myths surrounding the medicinal use of rhino horn.
I was first introduced to the idea that rhino horn was used to enhance the sexual virility of Asian men by the unstoppable Leon Schuster in his movie Oh Shucks! Here Comes UNTAG! For a long time I believed that all the rhino poaching was for horns to make Chinese men horny, but I was wrong. I was not alone however, because this is a common misconception. Rhino horn is not, in fact, prescribed as an aphrodisiac in traditional Asian medicine.
What, then, is rhino horn used for?
In Yemen, rhino horn is used for the carved handles of ceremonial daggers called jambiya. These daggers are given to Yemeni boys when they are 12 years old and serve as a sign of the young mans religiosity and as a personal weapon. Medicinal use of rhino horn is common throughout India, Malaysia, China and South Korea.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine the horn is shaved or ground into a powder and dissolved in boiling water. According to the 16th century Chinese pharmacist Li Shi Chen, the horn is used to treat fever, rheumatism, gout, and other disorders. It could also cure snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning, and “devil possession.”
It is believed that there may be some truth behind the rhino horn’s ability to detect poisons which is linked to the composition of the horn. Rhino horns are composed largely of the protein keratin, also the chief component in hair, fingernails, and animal hooves. Many poisons are strongly alkaline (or basic), and may have reacted chemically with the keratin.
But, does it work?
No. Both Hoffman-LaRoche (in 1983), the Chinese University of Hong Kong (in 1990) and the Zoological Society of London (in 2008) conducted tests of the medicinal properties of rhino horn. They all arrived at the same conclusion: rhino horn is of no use to anyone except the original owner.
Earlier this year a Malaysian oncologist, who lives in Kuala Lumpur, spoke out against the use of rhino horn in traditional medicine. Dr. Albert Lim Kok Hooi did not mince his words in his outspoken (and tremendously brave) statement;
To all this, I say that something that works for everything usually works for nothing. I also say that something that has been used for hundreds or thousands of years does not make it right… Essentially, ingesting rhino horn is the same as chewing your own fingernails.
That is the extremely sad story of rhino poaching today. We are hunting this magnificent beast into extinction for a few daggers and a deeply implausible and disproven medical tradition. We need better education in the societies demanding these treatments, we need more effective anti-poaching enforcement, and we need to stop killing rhinos.
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