How a myth is killing the rhino
ByAtul Sethi, TNN | Mar 4, 2013, 01.00 AM IST

NEW DELHI: A few days back, the bloodied carcass of a rhinoceros, shot and brutally stripped of its horn, was found in Kaziranga National Park. This was the ninth rhino to be killed in the park since January and the 12th in Assam since the beginning of this year. The virtual massacre of the majestic animal — estimates suggest that at this rate, almost 72 rhinos might be killed in Assam alone by the end of 2013 — assumes an even more tragic undertone considering that the reasons for the killings are various myths surrounding the supposedly curative properties of the rhino horn.

"Rhino horn is nothing but a cluster of hair," says Dipankar Ghose, director — Precision Landscape Programme of WWF India. "It's amazing how so many myths have sprung up regarding the humble hair's ability to cure anything -- from dandruff to cancer — even though successive studies have proven that it has no medicinal properties whatsoever."

The roots of the myths lie in traditional Oriental medicine — which has pegged it as an effective means of "balancing yin and yang" — eliminating toxins, as a potent fever reducer, an aphrodisiac and more lately, as a cure for cancer. This has soared demand for the horn especially in China, Thailand and Vietnam where it can fetch anything between Rs 30-40 lakh per kilogram from desperate patients. "Thankfully, the demand for the horn has dipped in the Middle East where it was being used as a handle for fashionable daggers sported by Arab Sheikhs," says Ghose.

The Sheikhs have since moved onto other toys like BMWs but the widely circulated misinformation regarding the horn's health benefits especially in Southeast Asia continues to pose a grave threat to the animal whose population has dipped by almost 90% since the 1970s. "The rhino is paying the price for the foolishness of a few, " says Jose Louies of the Wildlife Trust of India. "In this day and age of scientific advancement, that there are people who still blindly believe in such myths and at the cost of an entire species, is not just incredulous but unacceptable."

Incidentally, a study by the Zoological Society of London in 2008 found that consuming rhino horn constituents had just about the same medical benefit as chewing your own nails. Other studies conducted by Swiss global healthcare firm Hoffman-La Roche in 1983 and the University of Hong Kong in 1990, too, had found no evidence of the horn's medical benefits.

So, why are the myths still circulating? Rhishja Larson, author of the book Murder, Myths and Medicines, attributes it to the powerful traditional medicine lobby. "The biggest threat to the survival of the world's rhinos is the continued use of illegal rhino horn in traditional Chinese medicine," she says. "Unless we raise public awareness and educate people about the truth behind the rhino horn, these myths will continue to kill our rhinos."