Ironically, two great mammals with evolutionary lineages stretching back some 55 million years or so face challenges to their survival for the very characteristics that have served them so well—tusks in the case of elephants and horns in that of rhinos. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans have held a fascination for these massive protuberances. They have symbolized wealth and power, and our insatiable need to possess them has led to the wanton killing of these magnificent creatures in numbers that boggle the imagination.
ALL ABOUT HORN
There are two frequently-quoted studies stating that rhino horn has no medicinal qualities. But there are question marks over both. In 1980 the Swiss “Big Pharma” giant, Hoffman LaRoche, undertook a study on behalf of WWF. Although the results reputedly said that the tests “showed no analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmolytic nor diuretic properties,” the report was not published in its entirety and was subsequently unable to be traced. Then, in a short video, Dr. Raj Amin of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) said, “There is no evidence at all that any constituents of rhino horn have any medicinal property.” Amin’s investigation, however, focused on rhino horn fingerprinting, and the ZSL confirms that it has never conducted any studies on the medical properties of horn.
During the 1990s, Dr. Paul But Puihay, director of the Medicinal Material Research Centre at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, conducted tests on the effectiveness of rhino horn and its substitutes. His conclusion was that the horn did have an effect and should not be dismissed lightly.
All this and more is covered in great detail in Dr. Felix Patton’s comprehensive essay “The Medicinal Value of Rhino Horn—a quest for the truth.” Dr. Patton, an independent rhino ecologist, says that although horn and fingernails are primarily composed of keratin, you can’t assume that the chemical composition of each is identical. “Since chemical composition may have implications for medicinal properties, it is misleading to state that chewing fingernails will have the same medicinal effect as taking rhino horn.”
And as Dr. Mike Knight of the IUCN Species Survival Commission points out in an Africa Check article, “There are three research findings that show fever-reducing responses in children, so there is something there—some minor effect.”
It seems then that, despite widespread skepticism regarding rhino horn as medicine, the jury is out, at least to some extent. Several studies have come up with viable plant-based alternatives to rhino horn, and it has also been suggested that water buffalo and yak horn would be just as effective. But, the definitive study on rhino horn properties at the molecular level still has to be done.
In most mammals with such features, the horn has a living, bony core covered by a thin sheath of keratin. Keratin is Nature’s armor plating. It is the hard protein-based material that comprises hair, nails, scales, feathers, beaks, and claws in mammals, birds, reptiles, and other vertebrates. The baleen plates of filter-feeding whales are also composed of keratin. (In toughness and strength, the only other biological structure with properties similar to keratin is chitin. This cellulose-like glucose-based material makes up the exoskeleton of insects and other arthropods and the cell wall structure of fungi.)
Rhino horn is different. It lacks a bony core and is almost entirely made up of keratin. But it is not simply a uniform mass of tightly compacted hair-like fibers as once thought.
In 2006, a study published by Ohio State University in the USA referred to scans revealing dark patches running through the horn center. These were found to be dense deposits of calcium and melanin. These serve an important purpose: calcium adds hardness and strength to the core of the horn, while melanin prevents harmful UV rays from penetrating deeper than the outer layers.
The comparatively softer outer portion of the horn weakens with exposure to the sun, rubbing on woody plants and hard ground, and in clashes with other rhinos. As a result, the horn gradually weathers into its characteristic shape, curved and pointed at the tip.
The supposed medicinal powers of rhino horn tend to focus on the old and current beliefs of eastern cultures, but faith in rhino horn remedies reaches back through the centuries in many parts of the world, including Europe.
For example, ancient Greeks believed that rhino horn could purify water. And 2,500 years ago, the Persians thought liquid poisons would froth up if poured into a hollowed-out rhino horn. Once Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity shared this belief, as did the crowned heads of Europe up to as recently as the 18th and 19th centuries. Could there be a vestige of truth in these legends? Possibly—alkaloid poisons might react with the keratin in the rhino horn.
Furthermore, physicians throughout Asia used horn to relieve a variety of symptoms and illnesses. And in Chinese medicine—see “Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)” below—horn ground into a powder was used to lower fever and ease rheumatism and gout. The list of TCM applications was (and still is) long: snakebite, boils, food poisoning, possession by spirits, headaches, hallucinations, high blood pressure, and even typhoid.
During the Middle Ages, it didn’t take long for Arab traders to recognize the commercial value of supposed unicorn horn in Europe, and they were quick to market rhino horn as the real deal. The single, spiraled tusk of the narwhal was also proffered as unicorn horn.
“Unicorn horn” and the powder from it, referred commonly to as “alicorn,” was said to have the power to render poisoned water potable and to heal sickness. Royalty had cups and cutlery made of it, and Martin Luther is alleged to have called out for it on his deathbed. It is probably little realized that “unicorn horn” was officially recognized as a drug in England until 1741.
Numerous studies and experiments have been conducted to test if the rhino horn has curative properties or medicinal value, but there is little scientific evidence to support that it does. (See “Medical value—Does or doesn’t horn have curative powers.”)
Many traditional medicine practitioners now refrain from prescribing horn, but traditions still hold sway in some communities. Modern urban legends also persist with nonsense about horn as an aphrodisiac and even a cure for cancer. Furthermore, rhino horn symbolizes wealth and influence, is a hangover cure, and an ecstasy-like party drug among wealthy young Vietnamese. These unsupported attributes continue to drive the killing of rhinos.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
TCM is based on the idea that the mind, emotions, and spirit, together with the body’s physical structures, form a complex and integrated whole. Maintaining and restoring the balance between these components is fundamental to TCM practice dating back more than 2,000 years. Clinical diagnosis in TCM is a complex process to establish if a disease or illness is “hot” or “cold,” superficial or deep, or developing acutely or slowly. Once defined, appropriate remedies (which include animal parts, plants, and minerals) can be prescribed. Rhino horn is regarded as a “cold” drug and used to counteract “hot” conditions—heat has a broader interpretation than the western association with fever.
There is no scientific evidence of the unicorn’s existence. However, stories from antiquity abound with tales of unicorns—horse or goat-like creatures (often white) with a single spiral horn emanating from their foreheads. They were depicted on seals dating back to the Indus Valley Civilization 3,300–1300 years ago, and ancient Greek travelers and historians wrote about them. Even the Old Testament mentions a one-horned beast—the re’em—a word sometimes translated as a unicorn.
Unicorns certainly never existed, so how did the folklore around them originate? Maybe it was from paintings and carvings of aurochs. (These now extinct cattle were often represented side-on which gave the impression of having a single horn.) Or could these fanciful creatures actually have been rhinos? Possibly, and in some cases quite probably. For example, the Greek physician Ctesias who served in the Persian court around 404 BCE, described a creature from India that had a “purple head and carried a single horn upon its forehead.” Although Ctesias was given to wild claims and passing on second-hand information, his description sounds very much like that of an Indian Rhino.
Maybe the unicorn/rhino association dates back to even earlier times. The last remnant populations of the giant Elasmotherium were still around in Asia about 29,000 years ago, briefly overlapping with the earliest humans known to have lived there. This massive, extinct rhino is thought to have carried a huge single horn on its forehead. Did tales of this great beast get passed down from generation to generation? Who really knows.
The qilin of Eastern myth is sometimes referred to as the Chinese unicorn. But this beast of fancy is more dragon-like (a chimera with the body of a deer, the head of a lion, green scales, and a long, forwardly-curved horn). The Japanese version is more like the Western portrayal, while the Vietnamese representation embodies ancient symbols of wealth and prosperity. Could the current Vietnamese belief in the power of rhino horn have its roots in this lore?