Sunday September 19, 2010
A horny story
By Dr ALBERT LIM KOK HOOI
Leave the rhinos alone. Their horns don’t have medicinal properties, and ingesting rhino horn is the same as chewing your own fingernails.
I KEPT a rhinoceros beetle as a pet before I ever encountered a real rhinoceros. It must have belonged to the species Oryctes rhinoceros as our house bordered oil palms. I never thought of these exquisite playthings as a pest even though (I now know) they can defoliate and sometimes kill coconut and oil palms.
I never thought of the horns (borne by the males) as weapons in mating battles against other males. To me, my little ebony black rhino was a thing of beauty. It moved majestically and its horn was grand and glorious. He was my gladiator. My rhino won many a battle against other males and did me proud, although I never got to see his harem and progeny.
When I saw my first real rhinoceros in the zoo, my fascination with horns grew exponentially. Neo-Fruedians, I am sure, will have a field day with this.
There are five extant species of rhinoceros. The white, the black, the Indian, the Javan and the Sumatran (the one found in our country, also known as Badak Api). I love them all although my favourite is the black rhino, Diceros bicornis (“two horns”). It was a natural extension of my love for my childhood pet. Black evokes power, elegance and mystery. Black rhinos roam the savanna of sub-Saharan Africa. Sadly they have been in the news because of the upsurge in poaching.
Rhinos are affectionate and intelligent animals. They have inhabited the Earth for 60 million years. Homo sapiens (the self-proclaimed sapient or wise man) are a Johnny-come-lately by comparison. We have been around for only 190,000 years or so. Unlike some species of rhino beetles, rhinos never got in the way of man. Yet we hunt and kill rhinos relentlessly for all sorts of misguided reasons.
Today, all five species of rhinos are perilously close to extinction. The Javan and Sumatran rhinos are near extinct. Indian rhinos may be coming back from the brink and that’s welcome news, although more has to be done.
Of the two African species, the white rhino has bounded from near extinction. The black rhino has not fared so well. As recently as 1970, there were an estimated 65,000 black rhinos. Today, there are fewer then 2,500 left.
Unlike most large mammals, habitat loss has not been a significant factor in the decline of rhinos. Rather it is poaching that has decimated the population. The rhino lives in a well-defined home range. It goes to the water holes daily where it is easily ambushed and shot.
The horn is then shorn off, sometimes off a dying animal, and exported illegally to be made into prized dagger handles in Yemen (although admittedly this is deceasing) or into a powder to be used in Chinese traditional medicine.
Li Shih Chen’s 1597 materia medica (translated by Bernard Read in 1931) listed the following ailments, amongst others, where the rhino horn is useful, “devil possession, keep away evil spirits and miasmas, gelsemium poisoning, hallucinations, bewitching nightmares, intermittent twitches with delirium, loss of vision, calming the liver, fear, anxiety, arthritis, loss of voice, typhoid, headache, fever”.
To all this, I say that something that works for everything usually works for nothing. I also say that something that has been used for hundreds or thousands of years does not make it right.
Several scientific tests have been commissioned to educate the public about the alleged curative properties of the rhino horn. Testing by researchers at Hoffmann La Roche and the Zoological Society of London arrived at the same conclusion: rhino horn contains no medicinal properties.
To quote from the conclusion of the second study ... “rhino horn, like fingernails, is made of agglutinated hair and has no analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmolytic nor diuretic properties. No bactericidal effect could be found against suppuration and intestinal bacteria. Essentially, ingesting rhino horn is the same as chewing your own fingernails.”
It is illegal in all countries to sell or trade rhino horn. The whole sad story of killing the rhino for its horn is not only criminal, it is cruel, immoral and unforgivably, without any scientific basis.
We are politically correct when it comes to a dinner party or a banquet. The food we serve should be halal, taking into account the sensitivities of our Muslim guests. We should also make sure there is no beef in deference to our Hindu friends and those who pray to the deity, Guanyin. If possible, no meat should be served because some of the diners are vegetarian.
I hope my host will also take into account my sensitivities and not serve the following endangered and protected species: Giant grouper, Chinese giant salamander, Chinook salmon, Caribou, Fin whale, green sea turtle, river dolphin, gaur and seladang, shark and blue-fin tuna. And, of course, no rhino horn should I come down with food poisoning.
Organic vegetables dunked in distilled water, anyone?
Dr Albert Lim Kok Hooi is a consultant oncologist. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.