Thursday, 3 May 2012

Rhino horn is not medicine

Full text of my letter to the Sunday Times commenting on Richard Girling's article (Horns of Plenty, Sunday Times Magazine, 29 April 2012). The original article needs a subscription to view.


Dear Madam/Sir

I read with interest and dismay Richard Girling's article (Horns of Plenty, Sunday Times Magazine, 29 April 2012). I must commend the writer for highlighting the abhorrent illegal trade in rhino horn.

Unsurprisingly, this was the major topic of discussion at Save the Rhino International's excellent Rhino Mayday event held at UCL last Tuesday. As an attendee and speaker at this event, I learned a lot about the demand and illegal supply of rhino horn. Although Mr Girling is correct that rhino horn is listed in 5,000 year old texts of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), alongside other such medical delights as mercury, cinnabar and realgar, it should be pointed out that TCM is a living and ever-evolving form of medicine with an unbroken tradition dating back many millennia. It has been illegal to medicinally use rhino horn in China since 1993 (fortunately, mercury fell into disuse many centuries earlier).

In the UK, the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (RCHM) strongly condemns the illegal trade in endangered species and has a strict policy prohibiting the use of any type of endangered species by any of our members. We do not consider rhino horn to be a medicinal ingredient and herbal substitutes are readily available. No animal/mineral products should be used in TCM in the UK as it is illegal to use animal/mineral products in unlicensed medicines and most herbal medicines come into this category.

It would be naive to think that none of the rhino horn illegally imported into places like China and Vietnam ends up as part of under-the-counter medicines (the per capita demand for rhino horn in Vietnam seems to be greater than any other country). However, from presentations made at Rhino Mayday, it seems the illegal trade in horn has now gone far beyond the limited medicinal market. Why would someone of a criminal persuasion grind up a valuable asset like a rhino horn when the powdered version would be indistinguishable from a cheap substitute such as horse hoof? The major problem now appears to be the use of horns as extravagant business gifts or an investment alternative to gold.

It is interesting to note that no one has ever been able to track down the source of the ridiculous myth that rhino horn can treat cancer. It certainly does not come from any ancient TCM text book. The best guess from knowledgeable people in the field is that it was an internet rumour put out by rhino horn salesmen in order to boost demand.

There are perfectly adequate laws in place to prevent the trade in rhino horn (and other endangered species) but enforcement is sporadic due to lack of will and/or lack of manpower (for example, the National Wildlife Crime Unit in the UK has only 8 full-time officers to cover everything from reptiles to bird eggs to rhino horn).

Rather than blaming Traditional Chinese Medicine for rhino poaching and museum theft, perhaps a more fruitful approach might be to encourage the Governments involved to enforce existing legislation. Britain’s imperial past as a colonial big-game hunter (hence all the Victorian-era rhinos in UK museums) means we must be at our diplomatic best when raising this subject in Asia and Africa. Current economic difficulties make the task even harder. However, doing nothing is not an acceptable option for the world’s remaining wild rhinos.

Gary Minns
President, Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine