100 rhinos have been killed in less than two months in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. AFP reports that this “surge” in rhino killings by poachers means that the number of the endangered animals killed this year could surpass the total of 381 killed last year.
80 percent of the world’s remaining 20,000 rhinos live in South Africa. Driving the killings is the black market for rhino horns in Asia — including Malaysia, South Korea, India and China — where the horns are thought to have healing properties.
Rhino horns are composed completely of keratin, which is found in hair, fingernails and animal hooves; chemical examination of the horns has shown that they are similar in structure to the beaks of turtles, cockatoo bills and horses’ hooves. In traditional Chinese medicine, the horns are ground up into a powder that is dissolved in water to treat fever, rheumatism, gout and other conditions. A PBS reports cites a 16th century Chinese pharmacist, Li Shi Chen, who said that rhino horns could be used for all manner of ailments including snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning and even “devil possession.”
PBS cites a 1990 Chinese University in Hong Kong study that found that “large doses of rhino horn extract could slightly lower fever in rats (as could extracts from Saiga antelope and water buffalo horn).” But the concentration of horn used by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine is much less than scientists used in their experiments.
In 2007, thirteen rhinos were killed. In 2010, that number rose to 333.
South Africa has deployed soldiers and investigators to the parks to fight the poachers. But the real issue is the external demand for the horns. As Albi Modise, a spokesman for South Africa’s department of environmental affairs says to AFP, “You can put all the resources at home, but if you don’t address the demand outside South Africa, you will not win the battle.”
Rhinos are being killed in increasingly larger numbers so their horns can be used for outmoded and inaccurate medical theories that will, it seems too likely, exist long after the last rhino dies.
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Photo by Jason Wharam