Rhinos, armed robbery and arsenic
By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 23 August 2011
Let’s call a spade a spade. If you look at a rhino I mean *really* look at it, go on don’t be shy there’s one right there, it’s a weird looking beast. Its great big head has tiny little eyes and its massive bulk makes it a formidable animal. The most rhino-y feature is of course the horn. A lot of animals have tusks, antlers, or maybe even horns, but no other species stumbling through evolution on a cold Pliocene day thought “I know, I’ll take this horn of mine and pop it onto my nose, hah haaah, that’ll impress the ladies”. No, they are unique. The rhino is a truly remarkable and remarkable looking animal.
So this horn, what’s it all about? Rhino horn is made of keratin. What’s that you say? Look down at the tips of your fingers (or toes if you’d prefer) and (hopefully) you will be looking at some keratin. Some of you may need to remove nail varnish before you can give your keratin a really good inspection. Yes rhino horn is made of the same stuff as finger nails.
Many of you may suffer from that naughty habit of biting your nails. That’s not so bad overall, if you don’t swallow them. And yet, this is what many cultures in Asia do as a remedy for illnesses. Though I don’t mean their own nails, they eat the nails of rhinos. Or, the rhino’s other source of keratin- the horn, to get to the point (pun intended). Why do they do this? Mighty good question. Traditional Chinese medicine (or TCM) is an age old tradition of ‘remedies’ that in the case of rhino horn are thought to cure maladies such as headaches, pus-filled boils and even devil possession. I wouldn’t want to deny anyone a little headache relief, let alone a little devil expulsion, but there are two tiny issues that should be considered here:
1) Repeated scientific tests have shown that rhino horn has absolutely no medicinal value. It cures diddly squish. In fact, recent results have suggested that rhino horn is even bad for your health.
2) Wild rhino numbers are being decimated to fuel this black market and horns are often taken in the most barbaric of ways. As a result of poaching, three of the five rhino subspecies are critically endangered. The other two are listed as vulnerable and near threatened.
Here comes the part that throws the sad reality of the situation into a mixing pot with a bizarre crime/thriller novel. With rhino numbers drastically decreasing in the wild, black market dealers are turning their attention to rhino horns kept by antique dealers, auction houses and museums. Subsequently, 22 thefts have occurred throughout Europe in the last six months, and on occasion have been accompanied by the use of tear gas and gun wielding. Not exaggerating.
Better to steal from a museum than to kill a living rhino of course (though neither are desirable, especially any scenario that involves being held up at gunpoint which I’ve tried and don’t recommend), but unfortunately, up until the early 20th Century, health and safety was really yet to evolve as a department and specimens such as rhino horns were soaked in arsenic and regularly coated in DDT to keep away pests. DDT and arsenic, for those of you who slept your way through chemistry at school, are both very dangerous, poisonous substances that most importantly, maintain their potency over time.
The Acting Director of Save the Rhino International, Lucy Boddam-Whetham, said recently “Experts agree we are facing the worst rhino poaching crisis in decades”. Now, to add insult to grotesque injury, not only are we facing the loss of a remarkable animal but we are also going to lose our cultural heritage, and specimens that serve as important teaching aids and conservation props that help us spread the word of the rhino’s plight. Yes that does works, I’ve seen it in action. Plus of course, if you’re eating arsenic coated rhino remedies in China, you’ll probably be losing your health as well.
“The trafficking of these species will only end when the demand does – or when the supply runs out – whichever happens first. For the sake of the rhinos, and all of us, we hope that it will not be the latter.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.