Why Do People Like Rhino Horns?

Today, we will talk about why people like the horns of rhinos. The ancestor of the rhinoceros evolved in India 55 million years ago, and millions of their descendants spread across Africa and Asia. But today, they’re almost all gone because some think one part of their body is worth killing for.

The Supposed Healing Power of Rhino Horns

The rhino horn has been valued since antiquity for use as a medium for handles, and carvings, and it’s widely loved for its beauty. In 1597, Li Shizhen wrote a medical paper stating rhino horns were a cure-all for “keeping away evil spirits and miasmas,” for “poisoning,” to keep away nightmares and hallucinations, for typhoid, fevers, colds, convulsions, dysentery, vomiting, arthritis, melancholia, loss of the voice, and so on.

But Li Shizhen didn’t add scientific evidence to this document. It was used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine until in 1993, rhino horns were outlawed and, according to TCM expert Lixin Huang, it “was never used alone,” and always with herbs. After the ban, they came up with alternatives that allegedly did the same thing. Today, despite these bans, some in Vietnam believe the horn can assuage hangovers and headaches and even cure cancer. Because of this, a single 3Kg horn can be worth 300,000 dollars there. That’s more than gold!

Rhino Horns and Medicinal Value

Because it has been banned, there’s not a lot of data on whether the horn contains any kind of medicine or not. Most cite a single human study done with the horn that claims it didn’t work any better than aspirin at curing headaches. To figure out whether there was any basis to it being a cure-all, I looked up studies of the construction and composition of rhino horn. One by the Zoological Society of London analyzed the chemicals in a rhino horn and found that they’re highly determined by what that rhino eats over its lifetime. They’re all different! Some eat succulents and others eat grasses, so each horn is unique.

Also, a study out of Ohio State scanned and broke down the horns, finding exactly what the structures looked like. It noted that they were mostly constructed of keratin with a calcium and melanin core, so they got harder as they were sharpened from use in battle with other rhinos, like a big pencil. They called it a “cornified papillary epidermal appendage” and classified it as similar to bird beaks, hair, fingernails, and skin-based structures. The horns are really similar to the construction of hooves. Now, if the horn is made of regular old calcium, nitrogen, carbon, and other such elements found in nature and is basically keratin, could that keratin have medicinal benefits?

The Journal of Anatomy analyzed every type of keratin. It checked out the pH, structure, atomic polarization and handedness, molecular weight, chemical characteristics, genetic basis, source, evolution, and even association with culture, bringing us full circle. The closest mention of medicine was in keratin K23, where it could be used to treat pancreatic cancer, but that’s not found in a rhino horn, but in the human pancreas.

Possibly A Placebo

In extensive studies of keratin as a biomaterial for medical applications, no one has yet found anything I could turn up to turn keratin into medicine. That being said, studies in China found that rhino horns had statistically significant pharmacological effects on inflammation, pain relief, and many other things. However, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, their results couldn’t be replicated in studies done in the UK or South Africa. So, maybe it’s just a placebo, which means it’s not the rhino horn at all, but raw human belief that it makes us “better.”

Perhaps people in Vietnam believe it works, and thus it works for them, but so far, the for-profit biomedical industry has yet to find proof of it. If rhino horns did have a medical benefit, we’d have found it, synthesized it, and started selling its effects in Western Medicine, too. Even so, within 10 years, there will be no more of this animal in the wild ever again on this planet.

What do you think? How can we save this incredible and ancient animal? Put your ideas in the comment section. For other interesting topics to explore, check out why people trade.

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