Rhino horn has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. A recent spike in demand, particularly in Vietnam, has placed already endangered species of rhinoceros in greater peril. But what magical properties do its adherents believe it possesses and what does modern science have to say? By Brett Davis.

For millennia the horn of the rhinoceros has been thought to have healing powers. These beliefs persist and it is to a great extent why the global rhinoceros population has, by some estimates, been reduced by about 90 percent in the last 40 years.

Last year the western black rhino was declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, while around the same time the last Javan rhino in Vietnam was found shot dead with its horn sawn off in Cat Tien National Park in Lam Dong province northeast of Saigon.

In recent years the price of rhino horn on the Vietnamese market has exploded. A recent AFP report quotes an expert in traditional medicine who says the product is worth US $50,000 per kilo, while other estimates have put it as high as US $65,000 a kilo. This would make the street value of rhino horn greater than gold or cocaine.

So what has made rhino horn such a prized treatment in eastern medicine for thousands of years? Its supposed versatility, for starters, may be an indication. According to the 16th century text of Chinese pharmacologist Li Shi Chen, rhino horn could be used to treat ailments as diverse as snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning, fevers, delirium, fear and anxiety, to name just a few. Interestingly, and seemingly at odds with much of the purported benefit of wildlife-derived products in traditional Chinese medicine, rhino horn was not prescribed to increase male sexual potency.

However, the recorded use of the substance as a medicine goes back much further. In the Divine Plowman’s Herbal, attributed to Shennong Bencao Jing and written sometime between 200BC and AD200, rhino horn was classed as a medium category drug for use against all “intoxications and deliriums”. The ancient Greeks and Persians were using the powdered horns to purify water and detect poisons in liquids in the 5th century BC.

Rhino horn is actually agglutinated hair and is made up primarily of keratin, the main component of our own fingernails and hair. A recent study at Ohio University revealed the horn of the rhino is also similar to horse hooves, turtle beaks and cockatoo bills, and contains dense calcium and melanin deposits.

There have been numerous studies over the years into the medicinal properties of rhino horn, with overwhelmingly negative results. Major research undertaken by Swiss global healthcare company Hoffman-LaRoche in 1983 for the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature found no fever reduction, pain relief, anti-inflammatory or anti-bacterial properties associated with rhino horn. Summing up the results, Dr Arne Schiotz of the WWF said, “This proves that rhino horn is of no use to anyone except the original owner.”

These results were re-confirmed recently after extensive analysis by Dr Raj Amin at the Zoological Society of London. His team was also able to isolate unique identifying properties in the rhino horn, which will help authorities determine where seized horns have come from and which populations are being targeted by poachers.

In traditional Chinese medicine, Rhino horn is often prescribed for its antipyretic, or fever reducing, effect. This is because it is deemed to be a ‘cold’ medicine and can be used take the heat out of parts of the body and detoxify blood.

In 1990 the Chinese University of Hong Kong conducted a study on the antipyretic properties of Rhino horn, using rats that had been induced with fever. The animals were then given dosages of ground rhino horn dissolved in hot water (also the most common means humans use to ingest the substance).

The researchers found there was a significant reduction of fever in the rats 30 minutes after treatment, and that this effect lasted about 90 minutes. However, the dosage administered was 0.5 grams per milliliter, over 100 times the normally prescribed human oral dose.

Yet despite all this research the demand for rhino horn as a medicine continues, and here in Vietnam it has soared over the last few years. There are a number of theories for this, but several wildlife protection groups attribute it mainly to a rumour that a former high-ranking Vietnamese politician was cured of his liver cancer by taking rhino horn. Several investigations have found no basis for the story, and even most members of the traditional Chinese medicine fraternity discount the cancer curing properties of  rhino horn.

Unfortunately while such rumours and long-held beliefs in the efficacy of medicinal rhino horn persist, the world’s rhinoceros populations will continue their march towards extinction.