What Are Rhino Horns Made Of?
What Are Rhino Horns Made Of?
ScienceDaily reported that Scientists have discovered new details about the structural materials that form the horn and the role those materials play in the development of the horn’s characteristic shape. The horns of most animals have a bony core covered by a thin sheath of keratin, the same substance as hair and nails. Rhino horns are unique, however, because they are composed entirely of keratin. Scientists had been puzzled by the difference, but an Ohio University study has revealed an interesting clue: dark patches running through the center of the horns.
Drawing of Rhino Skull with CT-based images of horns in place. Redder colors
represent denser portions.
Black Rhino Skull
The team examined the heads of rhinos and conducted CT scans on the horns. They found dense mineral deposits made of calcium and melanin in the middle. The calcium deposits make the horn core harder and stronger, and the melanin protects the core from breakdown by the sun’s UV rays. The softer outer portion of the horn weakens with sun exposure and is worn into its distinctive shape through horn clashing and by being rubbed on the ground and vegetation. The structure of the rhino horns is similar to a pencil’s tough lead core and weaker wood periphery, which allows the horns to be honed to a sharp point. Thus, the horn is not simply a clump of modified hair and most closely resembles the structure of horses’ hoofs, turtle beaks and cockatoo bills. The study also found that the melanin and calcium patches appear in yearly growth surges but the effects of temperature, diet and stress on the growth are still unknown. The research findings were published in the Journal of Morphology.
Seized Black Rhinoceros Horn. Left horn shows the dark patches running through the center of the horn.
Frequently Asked Questions: Rhino Dehorning
Frequently Asked Questions: Rhino Dehorning
Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Rhino Security Project (www.ewt.org.za)
The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), in recognizing a dire need to urgently address the rapidly escalating problem of rhino poaching in South Africa, has developed a project to strengthen the security of rhino in South Africa. The Rhino Security Project will address rhino security concerns on privately owned game farms as well as in formally protected areas; improve communication between rhino owners and the relevant government officials; support improved investigations into rhino poaching incidences; work with relevant bodies to identify causes and drivers of the trade in rhino horn; and enhance current knowledge on the demographics of rhinos in situ in collaboration with other existing initiatives. Pursuant to the launch of the EWT’s Rhino Security Project and in response to the recent spate of rhino poaching in South Africa, many individuals have suggested that a simple solution to this complex problem is to dehorn all rhinos. The following question and answers aims to give you some facts about rhino dehorning as a conservation tool.
What is the composition of rhino horn?
The conventional belief is that rhino horn is simply a clump of compressed or modified hair. Researchers at the University of Ohio in the USA have used computerized tomography, better known as a CT scan, to show that horns are comprised of calcium, melanin and keratin, and are actually similar in structure to horse hooves, turtle beaks, and cockatoo bills.
What is rhino horn used for in the eastern market place?
Rhino horn has several uses including: an alleged remedy against fever, gout, rheumatism, and many other non life threatening ailments, an alleged cure against aggressive cancer, ornamental use, an aphrodisiac (this is denied by the Chinese themselves), and Yambiya handles in Yemen.
Does rhino horn actually have any medicinal value?
In China, rhino horn has been used for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) since 2000 BC and therefore belief in its medicinal properties is firmly entrenched. Modern science has been unable to prove definitively that rhino horn has real medicinal properties. Furthermore, claims that rhino horn has any medicinal value must be weighed up against the use of other more effective, sustainable and ethical products.
Can rhino horn be legally sold on the international market?
The international trade in rhino horn was banned in 1976 by signatories to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). In 1993 the Chinese government also banned the use of rhino horn, or any other parts from endangered species, in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Can rhino horn be sold in South Africa?
On 13th February 2009, the Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, published a national moratorium on the trade of individual rhinoceros horns and any derivatives or products of the horns within South Africa, in terms of Section 57(2) of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, 10 of 2004 (NEMBA). However, rhino horn may be traded as part of a trophy obtained during a legal trophy hunt.
What are the legal implications of dehorning rhino?
In terms of the Threatened or Protected Species Regulations of 2007 (TOPS) drafted in terms of NEMBA no person may, without being in possession of a valid permit: hunt, capture, kill, convey, import, export, keep live rhino in captivity, or possess a rhino horn.
Is dehorning an effective counter‐poaching measure?
Poachers are prepared to remove any vestige of horns, including the small growth nubs on rhino calves, and therefore dehorning is unlikely to be an adequate deterrent. Dehorning will only reduce the temptation to potential poachers if the re‐growth is cut regularly to ensure that the horn mass remains very low. Zimbabwe reported that their dehorning effort was successful, but only if used in conjunction with traditional counter‐ and anti‐poaching measures such as regular patrols and population monitoring. The principle should always be to “maximize risk for the poacher and minimize his reward”.
What are the arguments IN FAVOR of a legal, regulated trade in rhino horn?
It has been argued that flooding the market with horns harvested from dehorned rhinos would reduce incentives for poachers. Several arguments have been put forward supporting the legal trade in rhino horn:
• Rhino horn can be obtained without killing the animal and it therefore represents a renewable resource.
• Lifting the ban on trade in rhino horn would allow range states to manage their rhino populations and generate funds that could be ploughed back into conservation, surveillance and anti-poaching activities.
• Considerable quantities of confiscated horn are now building up in warehouses, and these could be used to generate conservation funds (but see below).
• A reduction in the global price of rhino horn would reduce the incentive for poachers.
• Selling rhino horn legally would produce a much greater return per unit area than current activities in many conservation areas.
What are the arguments AGAINST a legal, regulated trade in rhino horn?
Legalizing the trade in rhino horn is a highly controversial and risky approach and some strong arguments have been made against lifting the ban:
• Even under a sustainable dehorning programme there may simply not be enough rhinos to meet the demand for rhino horn. In this case poachers would continue to kill rhinos from areas not practicing “rhino farming”.
• The relationship between the volumes of horn traded and the demands of world markets is not well understood and there is a risk that it is not possible to influence global prices.
• CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) demands proof of legal acquisition of rhino horn.
• Current stockpiles include horns of unknown origin, including those seized by the government agencies during enforcement activities, which can never be sold.
• Even with careful regulation, the establishment of legal trade routes could provide a front for trade from illegally obtained sources, as it may be difficult to establish the origins of the horn.
• Many governments do not have adequate resources to protect animals from illegal poaching, let alone to police a legal trade.
• The process of dehorning itself is a threat to individuals as tranquilization has inherent risks.
What needs to be in place to lift the ban on trade in rhino horn?
Ultimately, the decision to lift the ban on trade in rhino horn is not one that can be made by individual range states. Any decision to lift the ban on rhino horn trading would have to come from the influential members of CITES. A non‐detriment finding would also\ be needed for South Africa, to demonstrate to CITES that the trade in rhino horn would not constitute a risk to our populations.
Can dehorning be achieved without injuring the rhino?
A rhino’s horn is not fixed to the skull of the animal but is almost an extension of the skin and is similar to a person’s fingernails. Horns should not be cut too close to the skull as this can cause injury to the animal, infection can set in and the animal can die. Horns must be removed by skilled veterinarians.
How does dehorning effect rhino social behavior?
The Zimbabwean authorities embarked on a fairly extensive dehorning exercise in the past and they emphatically state that they could not detect any negative effect on the social behavior of the dehorned rhinos. However more research is needed into this issue.
Does a rhino’s horn grow again after dehorning?
Studies in Zimbabwe have shown that rhino horns grow at a rate of up to 12 cm each year, and that horns of females grow slightly faster than those of males. Horns can therefore grow back to their original length and shape in time, but only if the growth plate of the horn is not damaged.
What are the additional risks involved in dehorning?
The biggest risk to the rhino is associated with the immobilization process, which is inherently dangerous and can be fatal. The biggest risk to the rhino owner is being in possession of the very commodity that poachers are after. Keeping of horns, especially in large numbers, exposes the owner to being the victim of potential criminal activity. A number of armed robberies involving the theft of entire stockpiles have already occurred in South Africa. The targets included museums, national parks, taxidermist studios as well as private individuals.
What should happen with the horns after dehorning?
A valid permit is required to possess rhino horn. Horns must be measured, weighed, micro‐chipped and registered by a conservation official. The onus is on the owner to keep the horn safe.
What are the costs involved in dehorning a rhino?
Costs associated with dehorning include veterinary expenses (time, drugs), labor and possible air support – particularly in dense habitats. Depending on the circumstances, a dehorning exercise can cost in excess of R8, 000 per animal, but will be proportionally reduced if more animals are dehorned during the same operation. Currently these costs are not recoverable as the horns, once removed, may not be legally sold.
Can a rhino owner make use of “green hunting” to recover the costs of dehorning?
Green hunting is a practice where a third party pays for the opportunity to dart (immobilize) a rhino and to have pictures taken with the animal. The drugs used for immobilization may by law only be prescribed to a qualified veterinarian registered with the South African Veterinary Council. The South African Veterinary Council has declared green hunting an unethical procedure, which means that veterinarians may no longer take part in or facilitate green hunts. The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism will no longer issue permits for green hunts and any person who takes part in such activity will be committing an offense. Veterinarians who are involved will be summoned before the South African Veterinary Council and may lose their license.
Will a dehorned rhino still appeal to eco‐tourists?
It has been proposed that tourists would not be happy to see horn‐less rhinos, however there have been no studies to date that have investigated the effect of dehorning on tourist preferences. If the reasons for dehorning are properly communicated it is possible that concerns about dehorned rhinos could be overcome.
What effect will dehorning have on the trophy hunting of rhino?
Trophy hunters are usually after the most prestigious trophy – the biggest or longest horn. Wide‐spread and large‐scale dehorning might therefore have negative impacts on the hunting industry which has been one of the incentives for the private sector to become involved in rhino conservation.
Rhino Horn: Facts and Myths
Rhino Horn: Facts and Myths
Extracted from Tiger Bone & Rhino Horn: The Destruction of Wildlife for Traditional Chinese Medicine, Richard Ellis 2005 Island Press, Hardcover: 312 pages, ISBN-10: 1559635320
Try this: Ask the person next to you what he or she thinks rhino horn might be used for in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Chances are, they’ll tell you it is used as an aphrodisiac. It is not. In certain Asian countries, ground rhino horn is used to cure almost everything but impotence and sexual inadequacy. In Bernard Read’s translation of the 1597 Chinese material medica “Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu”, the complete section on rhinoceros horn (“the best is from a freshly killed male animal”) reads as follows, with no mention of any aphrodisiac qualities:
“It should not be taken by pregnant women; it will kill the foetus. As an antidote to poisons (in Europe it was said to fall to pieces if poison were poured into it). To cure devil possession and keep away all evil spirits and miasmas. For gelsemium [jasmine] and snake poisoning. To remove hallucinations and bewitching nightmares. Continuous administration lightens the body and makes one very robust. For typhoid, headache, and feverish colds. For carbuncles and boils full of pus. For intermittent fevers with delirium. To expel fear and anxiety, to calm the liver and clear the vision. It is a sedative to the viscera, a tonic, antipyretic. It dissolves phlegm. It is an antidote to the evil miasma of hill streams. For infantile convulsions and dysentery. Ashed and taken with water to treat violent vomiting, food poisoning, and overdosage of poisonous drugs. For arthritis, melancholia, loss of the voice. Ground up into a paste with water it is given for hematemesis [throat hemorrhage], epistaxis [nosebleeds], rectal bleeding, heavy smallpox, etc.”
Because it was believed to provide such a pharmacological bounty, it is perhaps superfluous for rhino horn also to serve as a love potion. How then did rhino horn acquire its aphrodisiacal reputation? Probably from Western writers who had only a passing acquaintance with Chinese traditional medicine. One such was J.A. Hunter, (who was reputed to have shot more than a thousand rhinos) who, in 1952, wrote: “The horns are worth thirty shillings a pound or more – ten shillings more than the finest grade of ivory. These horns are used for a curious purpose. Orientals consider them a powerful aphrodisiac and there is an unlimited demand for them in India and Arabia. No doubt any man who has a harem of thirty or more beautiful women occasionally feels the need for a little artificial stimulant.”
Hunter tried it himself, but perhaps because he was alone, it did not work. “I closely followed the recipe given me by an Indian trader,” he wrote. “Take about one square inch of rhino horn, file it into a powder form, put it in a muslin bag like a tea bag, and boil it in a cup of water until the water turns dark brown. I took several doses of the concoction but regret to report that I felt no effects. Possibly I lacked faith. It is also possible that a man in the bush, surrounded by nothing by rhinos and native scouts, does not receive the proper inspiration to make the dose effective.”
In his 1962 study of the animals of East Africa, C.A. Spinage seemed to share the belief that Asians were interested in the horn as an aphrodisiac and were willing to pay handsomely for it: “On account of mysterious aphrodisiac properties attributed to the horn by certain Asiatic peoples, the Rhino has been sorely persecuted… With its horn fetching the present high price the prospects of its continued survival in the face of the poachers’ onslaught are not very bright.” The anthropologist Louis Leakey also shared this misunderstanding. In his 1969 book on African wildlife, he commented that rhinos were “in grave danger from poachers because rhino horn commands a high price in the Far East, where it is rated as an aphrodisiac.” And in S.O.S. Rhino, C.A.W. Guggisberg asserted that: “The superstition that has done more harm to the rhinoceros family than all others is undoubtedly the Chinese belief in the powerful aphrodisiac properties of the horns. Through the centuries untold generations of aged gentlemen have been imbibing powdered rhino horn in some appropriate drink, hoping to feel like a twenty-year-old when next entering the harem!”
Even without aphrodisiacal properties, however, rhino horn is one of the mainstays of TCM, and its collection has been responsible for the death of tens of thousands of rhinos around the world. Make no mistake: those people who use rhino horn to cure medical ailments really believe it works. That’s what drives up the demand on which the poachers thrive. As Ann and Steve Toon commented in 2002, “For practitioners of traditional Asian medicine, rhino horn is not perceived as a frivolous love potion, but as an irreplaceable pharmaceutical necessity.” And Eric Dinerstein (2003), concurs: “In fact, traditional Chinese medicine never has used rhinoceros horn as an aphrodisiac: this is a myth of the Western media and in some parts of Asia is viewed as a kind of anti-Chinese hysteria.”
Rhino horn has been an integral component of TCM for thousands of years. It matters little where the rhinos come from; the horn of a rhinoceros from any continent may be used for medical purposes. In East Africa – primarily Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania – statistics on rhino horn harvesting have been kept since 1926. Over this period, most of the rhinos killed were black rhinos, although the “harvesters” would not pass up a white rhino if it appeared in their gunsights. During the 1930s, according to Nigel Leader-Williams (1992), declared exports from East Africa (then under British rule) averaged about 1,600 kilograms (3,520 pounds) per year, which meant the death of some 555 black rhinos annually. During World War II, the numbers soared to 2,500 kilograms (5,500 pounds), for which approximately 860 rhinos died each year. During the 1950s and 1960s, the auction houses reported about 1,800 kilograms (3,960 pounds) per year; which would have entailed the death of about 600 rhinos every year in that period. In the 1970s, the numbers skyrocketed again, to 3,400 kilograms (7,480 pounds), and every year in that decade, 1,180 rhinos died. Leader-Williams (now Professor of Biodiversity Management of the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent) identifies the Far East’s primary consuming nations as Hong Kong (which was separate from the People’s Republic of China until 1997), mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah Malaysia, Brunei, Macau, and Thailand, while the major Asian importers of African rhino horn were, not surprisingly, the first three on this list – mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Hong Kong was the world’s largest importer of rhino horn. Although the government officially banned all imports in 1979, rhino horn was smuggled in from Macao, Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Taiwan, and South Africa. At the 1987 CITES meeting in Ottawa, participating parties agreed to abate the rhino crisis by closing down the trade in rhino products completely. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher promised the ban would take effect later that year. This never happened in an effective way, of course, but there were suggestions that substitutes for actual rhino parts might suffice for TCM. Scientists at the China Pharmacological Institute proposed using buffalo horn (made of keratin, as are rhino horns), and the manager of China’s National Health Medicines Products said that all their new medicines now used buffalo horn instead of rhino horn. In the section on “Heat-clearing, blood-cooling medicinals” in Wiseman and Ellis’s 1996 “Fundamentals of Traditional Chinese
Medicine”, we find the admission that all those rhinos didn’t have to be killed at all. After a list of all the symptoms that rhinoceros horn can alleviate, there is this note: “The rhinoceros is an endangered species. Please use water buffalo horn as a substitute.”
Taiwanese self-made millionaires are notorious for their conspicuous consumption of rare and exotic wildlife, and the Chinese traditional adage that animals exist primarily for exploitation is nowhere more pronounced than on Taiwan. Most of the rhino horn for sale there comes from South Africa. The demand for Asian horn in particular is increasing and wealthy Taiwanese, aware that prices will rise even higher as rhinoceros numbers decline, are buying it as an investment. In those regions where rhino horn products are dispensed – legally or illegally – the most popular medicines are used for tranquilizers, for relieving dizziness, building energy, nourishing the blood, curing laryngitis, or simply, as the old snake-oil salesmen would have it, “Curing whatever ails you.” Keratin – the major protein components of hair, wool, nails, horn, hoofs and the quills of feathers – in rhinoceros horn is chemically complex and contains large quantities of sulphur containing amino acids, particularly cysteine, but also tyrosine, histidine, lysine, and arginine, and the salts calcium carbonate and calcium phosphate. Rhino horns are composed primarily of keratin, but so too are rhino nails. Three to a foot, for a grand total of twelve per rhino, the nails can also be shaved or powdered for pharmaceuticals. You cannot carve a jambiya handle from a toenail, but shaved or powdered rhinoceros keratin, with all its believed powers, might be beneficial regardless of which part of the rhino it comes from.
The scarcity of rhinos today, and the corresponding intermittent availability of rhino horn only drives the price higher, and intensifies the pressure on the declining rhino populations. For people whose annual income is often far below the subsistence level, the opportunity to change one’s life by killing a large, ungainly, and otherwise seemingly “useless” animal must be overwhelming. How much is rhino horn worth? In Nowak’s revision of “Walker’s Mammals of the World”, we read:
“R. unicornis is jeopardized by loss of habitat to the expanding human population and illegal killing, especially in response to the astonishing rise in the value of the horn. The wholesale value of Asian rhino horn increased from US $35 per kg [2.2 pounds] in 1972 to $9,000 per kilogram in the mid-1980s. The retail price, after the horn has been shaved or powdered for sale, has at times in certain East Asian markets reached $20,000-$30,000 per kilo. In contrast, in May 1990, pure gold was worth about $13,000 per kilo.”
Throughout those markets, the trade in rhino horn for medicinal purposes is a very big business, but because much of it is conducted through various black markets, its true magnitude may never be known. The Taiwanese make up much of the market for horn imported to Asia from South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe – wherever black rhinos can still be found.
Like the Taiwanese, many Koreans are devoted practitioners of traditional medical arts, and are prepared to import substantial amounts of substances not naturally found in their country. Korean traditional medicine is based on the Chinese version, which is said to have come to Korea during the sixth century. “Rhinoceros horn,” wrote Judy Mills in 1993, “is an ingredient in five… medicines still popular among doctors of Oriental medicine in Korea today. These rhinoceros horn derivatives are used to treat maladies including stroke, nosebleeds, dermatitis, headache, facial paralysis, high blood pressure, and coma. The most popular of these medicines is Woo Hwang Chang Shim Won, a medicine ball made from rhinoceros horn, musk, cow gallstones, and a number of herbs.” In 1992, after the US government threatened to impose sanctions via the Pelly Amendment on South Korea for failure to police the trade in rhino horn, the price of rhino horn in South Korea doubled. Among the some 7,000 doctors licensed to practice Korean medicine in South Korea (no figures are available for North Korea), there was little diminution of prescriptions written for Woo Hwang Chang Shim Won after 1992. In fact, it is not clear that the use of rhino horn for medicinal purposes has decreased at all.
Indeed, it is not clear that rhino horn serves any medicinal purpose whatsoever, but it is a testimony to the power of tradition that millions of people believe that it does. Of course, if people want to believe in prayer, acupuncture or voodoo as a cure for what ails them, there is no reason why they shouldn’t, but if animals are being killed to provide nostrums that have been shown to be useless, then there is a very good reason to curtail the use of rhino horn.
There are five species of rhinoceros, and with the exception of one subspecies of the African white rhino, all are in danger of being hunted to extinction for their horns. Rhinos as we know them have been around for millions of years, but Dr H. Sapiens has created a predicament from which they might never recover. It is heartbreaking to realize that the world’s rhinos are being eliminated from the face of the earth in the name of medications that probably don’t work.