The two main markets for the consumption of rhino horn are in Asia, principally China (traditional medicine) and Vietnam (a burgeoning, more recent market based on spurious cancer cure claims and its use as a recreational drug). In the face of such cultural beliefs, many of which are centuries old, have demand reduction worked?


Chinese and Vietnamese people are probably no more intractable than any other nationalities when it comes to ingrained beliefs, including the nations of the west. Witness the number of people in western societies who labor under the misapprehension that inoculating babies against childhood illnesses causes autism, despite the source promoting this view being thoroughly discredited.

Of course it would be wrong to dismiss Chinese Traditional Medicine (TCM) as it has much to offer, not only in China. And it is acknowledged that the jury is, to some extent, still out on the efficacy of rhino horn as a remedy for a number of ailments. The best course of action would be a thorough scientific study of the pharmacological properties of horn. If therapeutic value is found to be present and effective, viable alternatives to rhino horn could be sought. It is worth noting that in 2010 the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies removed tiger and rhino products from the approved list of traditional medicines.

Any assumption that the citizens of China and Vietnam could never be persuaded to change their ways is incorrect.  A good example of this is the delicacy of shark fin soup in China, which originated during the Ming dynasty around the 14th century or even earlier. Since the 1990s increased shark fin consumption led to the decimation of shark populations. Recently, however, there have been reports of a dramatic reduction in consumption in the wake of sustained pressure.

The Vietnamese belief in the curative power of horn is not even based in tradition. It has surely been disastrous for rhinos, but it is faddish and reversible. There is no reason that campaigns to make horn consumption in Vietnam socially unacceptable would be any less achievable than the stigma now attached to drink driving in the west.

The case of horn used for Yemeni dagger handles, mentioned earlier, is another example of changing attitudes. Whether “traditional” or not, confronting the practice was clearly possible. If anything, education and demand reduction programs should be stepped up.


Chinese Traditional Medicine (TCM) is a many faceted therapeutic discipline that has been practised for thousands of years. It is based in the belief that all natural phenomena are determined by the opposite yet complementary forces of yin and yang, and that diseases are treated by restoring balance and maintaining harmony in the body as an integrated whole. Treatments include acupuncture and remedies derived from animal parts, plants and minerals can be prescribed. Rhino horn has been used for a variety of ailments ranging from poisoning and hallucinations to typhoid, carbuncles, boils, and fever. (See also …) 

These uses are steeped in tradition and culture, entrenched in societies that will not easily change – certainly not within a time scale that would save rhinos. 

In addition, TCM is also practised and respected in many societies outside of China, including the west. Furthermore, nearly 200 modern medicines have been developed directly or indirectly from TCM.

Attempts to change the hearts and minds of the people of southeast Asia have been unsuccessful. To assume that this could or should be done is a case of gross cultural arrogance. 

The often-used demand reduction example of the use of shark fins is not appropriate, as it is a food choice as opposed to the use of rhino horn, which is deeply rooted in medical practices and beliefs.

And, precisely because these deeply held beliefs are so entrenched, why not take advantage of the commercial opportunity presented and thwart illegal supply via a legitimate market that could provide funding for conservation and rural poverty alleviation?

Instead, demand reduction strategies have diverted huge amounts of donor funding into an activity that hasn’t worked. All they have done is impose a Euro-centric, western solution on an African and Asian problem.