Potency Potions That Potentially Cost the Earth

The Natural History Museum in Tring, Hertfordshire, aims to “promote the discovery, understanding, enjoyment, and responsible use of the natural world.” Online and flesh-and-blood visitors are welcome to peruse the institution’s “fantastic exhibitions.” In August, 2011, the museum received some very unwelcome visitors. Thieves smashed their way in and removed the horns from the rhinos that formed part of the taxidermy display. Rhinoceros horns, valued for their supposed medicinal properties, can fetch as much as £60,000 per kilo – more than gold or cocaine. The robbers’ haul could have weighed around 4kg. This was, however, a “pointless theft,” manager Paul Kitching said. “The rhinoceros horns… were replicas made out of resin, so they have no commercial value.”

The Cure for All that Ails You

The horn of the rhinoceros is a particularly prized item as it is both rare and, traditionally, used in Asian medicine for treating  febrile convulsions, boils, typhoid, headache, colds, demonic possession, fever, depression, “the evil miasma of hill streams,” anxiety and rectal bleeding, to name but a few. More recently, it has been touted as a cure for erectile dysfunction and is claimed to have anti-ageing properties. Supermodel Elle McPherson had unashamedly talked of using rhino horn based concoctions. She now claims these comments were a joke. Hilarious.

As a general rule of thumb, substances alleged to cure myriad conditions cure nothing. Such is true of rhino horn. There is neither biological plausibility nor any report beyond anecdote of its efficacy in alleviating even one of the conditions listed or any of the other fifty or so I found researching this article. Rhinos are being killed and museums robbed for appendages made from compacted keratin, just like human finger nails.

Highly Organised Crime

Head of security at Tring, Andrew Wilkinson, said vigilant staff alerted him to individuals with unusual visiting patterns ahead of the robbery taking place. “We believe we were the subject of a hostile reconnaissance the week before,” he said. Tring is not alone in its misfortune. More than thirty collections across Europe have had rhinoceros horns – real and replica – stolen. This is highly organised crime. A trio of thieves  suspected of stealing a rhino horn from a Vienna auction house in 2011 and  from the Ritterhaus Museum in Offenburg February 2012, are also suspects in the stabbing to death of  a 23-year-old German waitress thought to have witnessed their crime, according to Offenburg police.

It is not just the horns of long dead, museum-preserved specimens that are at risk. Numbers of wild rhinos are dwindling because of the activities of poachers. Elizabeth Bennett, of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York affirmed, “We are rapidly losing big, spectacular animals to [a] trade driven by criminalised syndicates.” The growing populations of far eastern countries such as China are increasing the demand for body parts of animals used in traditional medicine. This coupled with the widening use of these practices globally, buoyed by international e-commerce, means demand far outstrips supply. Scarcity adds value, inflating potential profits.

Wildlife and environmental crime officer with South Wales Police, Mark Goulding, attests,

“Organised Crime gangs are becoming more involved in the animal parts and derivatives trade as it is more lucrative than the production and movement costs of cocaine and heroin.”

The suffering of these animals begets the suffering of others as, he continues,

“Amazingly [the gangs] are laundering their money by buying rare and endangered species such as the Hyacinth Macaw and selling them on to collectors.”

Attempts to Halt the Trade

The Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), held in Geneva, saw the UK heading discussions to secure an agreement preventing the illegal trade in rhino horn. Then environment secretary Caroline Spelman insists that Britain is “leading global action to clamp down on this cruel and archaic trade.” Britain has, encouragingly, kept up the pressure on the trade, announcing in March of this year:

The temporary suspension of trade in ‘artistic items’ will mean nearly all future applications for the export of rhino horn will be refused. Licenses will only be granted if buyers and sellers meet stringent criteria.  We do not expect the suspension to be lifted until it is successful in reducing poaching and demand.

Disappointingly, previous attempts at control have met with failure. In South Africa, poachers still killed rhinos that had been de-horned by game keepers. It has been suggested that this was being done at the behest of criminal syndicates to drive the animals closer to extinction and thus inflate the price rhino parts can command. Public burnings of the horns and other confiscated animal products, such as tiger bones and elephant tusks, have served to, very publicly, increase scarcity, thus driving the prices for the contraband higher still. Ranching has been mooted as a possible solution; however, given the size of a fully grown rhinoceros, the vast amount of land required would be difficult to secure.

Harsh Sentences No Deterrent

Even the harsh penalties and risks associated with poaching are little deterrent when such large profits are at stake. In South Africa, Chumlong Lemtongthai, a Thai national was jailed in early November for his role in organising rhino poaching. The 40 year sentence was the longest ever handed down for crimes of this kind. Rhino Co-ordinator for World Wildlife Fund -South Africa, Dr Jo Shaw, commented,

It is so important that all those involved in rhino crimes receive sentences which match the severity of their actions to form an effective deterrent to others. These higher-level arrests and convictions are critical to disrupting the illegal trade chains used to move rhino horns into illicit markets in Asia.

Sticking with South Africa as an example, the Department of Environmental Affairs states  that, 333 rhinos were poached in 2010. In 2011, 448. It’s clear the problem shows no signs of abating. The running total for 2012 is, of 16th October, 455 rhinos. It is hard to believe that just 13 rhinos were poached just five years ago. Dozens of poachers, too, have lost their lives. The cost of rhino horn is exceptionally high.

Many Species Threatened By Alt-Med

Sadly, the rhinoceros is not alone in its plight. With the demand for rhino horns being so very high and rhino numbers so very low, the population of saiga antelope, the more “cost effective” alternative, has been reduced by 70%. Tiger bone wine is believed to relieve arthritis. Trade in tiger parts has driven their numbers to fewer than a hundred in China with no more than 3,500 remaining worldwide. The demand for the traditional Chinese medicine is growing with shops popping up on high streets and in shopping centres the world over. With numbers of tigers so low, the death of even a single beast can be thought of, says Sally Nicholson of the World Wildlife Fund, as “Another nail in the coffin” of the species as a whole. Though the Chinese government has removed tiger derivatives from the national list of approved medical ingredients, sale of tiger parts is now most common in North America. Nicholson states, “[Tigers] have been poached to meet the demand for medicines across Far Eastern countries as well as European Union, United States, Canada.”

Aquatic animals, too, are at risk of extinction to meet the demand for eastern quackery. Twenty million seahorses are harvested annually for ingredients for aphrodisiacs and impotency cures. The fat of the three-striped box turtle is believed to have cancer curing properties and all but a few colonies of this species have been wiped out. Plant biodiversity, too, is being ravaged in the name of complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) with around Five billion people, globally, using plants in one modality of CAM or another. Just one example, ginseng, another supposed libido enhancer, has been wiped out in China and Korea. Demand for wild ginseng, as opposed to the cultivated variety, threatens stocks in the USA too.

That species become extinct over time is natural. Some hit an evolutionary cul-de-sac and die out while others are killed by disease, predators and, wearyingly commonly, human greed. What makes the trade in animal derivatives for CAM uniquely depressing is that the products have never saved, lengthened or improved the quality of life for any of their users. Indeed, faith in such practices and their potions have led people to false hope, untimely death and unnecessary suffering when science-based medicine may have helped. Predictably, proponents of traditional Chinese medicine decry its critics as racists trying to rob people of their culture. It is becoming obvious that the only way to stop the trade in animal derivatives is to reduce demand. A concerted campaign to combat the pseudo-science and purveyors of false hope and false cures is needed. The side-effect of this would be a better, greater understanding of health and medical issues generally, so there is a two-fold benefit. The difficulty in adopting this approach is that it will require imagination: something that has, so far, been lacking in the fight to combat this evil, destructive and growing trade.

About M O'Callaghan

I work at home, in Wales and am the proud mother of the adorable Pwdin of my Autismum.com blog. My son is autistic and (let's get it out the way) fully vaccinated. When he's asleep or at school, I contribute to various websites such as Vaccines Today and Seek the Evidence among others. Here at Skeptoid, I intend to write about products, therapies and practices being marketed to parents and families. Give me a bit of wiggle room on this one, though, as I have found that parenting pages and mum magazines promote much woo targeted at women which may well get a good going over from time to time. Follow me @MLOCallaghan
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