Few people would think that chewing their nails is tantamount to taking medicine, yet many practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine believe something equally unscientific.
They assume that rhino horns, which are made from the same form of protein (keratin) as fingernails and hair, have medicinal value. Yet consuming rhino horns has no more medicinal value than consuming fingernails and hair.
Rhino horns remain important ingredients in Chinese medicine, believed to treat a broad range of diseases from cancer to gout. As a result, there is high demand for rhino horns, which is one of the main causes of rhinos being poached mercilessly in Africa and elsewhere. Despite stepped-up conservation efforts aimed at protecting African rhinos, illegal poaching activities persist, driving endangered rhinos closer to extinction.
To make matters worse: last year China legalized the use of rhino horns and tiger bones for “medical purposes.” Under the new regulations hospitals can obtain animal parts legally from farms. Experts think the expansion of tiger farms and plans to farm rhinos in China may be the reasons behind the lifting of the 25-year-old ban on rhino horns and tiger bones in the country.
Conservationists are concerned that legalization could boost demand even further for the body parts of endangered animals. “China’s call to reverse a 25 year ban on rhino horn and tiger bone is a huge step backwards for wildlife conservation,” the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya’s largest rhino sanctuary, said in a statement posted on Facebook. “Although these products have no known medicinal value, the re-legalisation has been approved for medical use, and will no doubt place these highly endangered animals under ever more intolerable pressure.”
At the same time, further undermining the belief in the medicinal properties of rhino horns has been a recent study by scientists at from the University of Oxford and Fudan University in China. They have shown that an artificial rhino horn made from horsehair is almost indistinguishable from a real rhino horn. “This similarity between rhinoceros horn and high-performance composites is not surprising; both materials are made up of stiff, inflexible fibres embedded into a flexible resin,” they write.
The researchers describe how they produced the fake horn in a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports. “We bundled together tail hairs of the rhino’s ubiquitous near relative, the horse, to be glued together with a bespoke matrix of regenerated silk mimicking the collagenous component of the real horn,” they explain. “This approach allowed us to fabricate composite structures that were confusingly similar to real rhino horn in look, feel and properties,” they add.
A way to roll back the poaching of rhino horns could involve flooding the black market with fakes in order to drive prices down and so discourage poaching.
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