Kenneth K. Coe is chairman of The Nature Conservancy’s volunteer Africa Council.
Their horns long prized for making daggers or for use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), rhinos have been illegally poached for as long as I can remember. However, out of nowhere in the last few years, there has been an astonishing spike in poaching as demand for rhino horn has accelerated. This sudden change is based on fantastic rumors (including some from Vietnam touting rhino horn’s cancer curing properties) and Asia’s growing wealth. Rhino horn prices and rhino poaching have exploded in lockstep, and at this trajectory, wild rhinos in Africa may become extinct in the next 5-10 years.
All this, based on rumors? As an Asian American, I feel a responsibility and am compelled to lend my voice to the issue.
On the supply side, African governments, landowners and communities are fighting a good fight on the ground. Vehicles, guns and planes are employed in “anti-poaching.” Blood is being shed. But often, penalties against poaching are mild, and steps to boost them have been slow. And in the real world of economics, attempts to curtail supply seldom lead to desired reduction in consumption.
Surely then, it’s about curtailing demand. Aside from working with Asian governments to strengthen their law enforcement, the conservation world has recently focused its efforts on a PR/education campaign against rhino horn use mainly by targeting TCM and by “glorifying” the creature. Success has been elusive: TCM is a confounding target due to its many different facets and the typical rhino horn user doesn’t give a hoot about creature. In any case, the campaign has been a “Western” effort (even if it deploys Asians) and thus dismissed by the largely provincial audience.
As for TCM, it is considered a legitimate, scientific and regulated medical profession in China and not to be confused with “folk medicine” still practiced by some. In folk medicine, anything goes, but TCM in China is strictly regulated by the Ministry of Health, which bans the use of wildlife products banned by CITES (including rhino horn). Numerous other Asian countries have, over time, adopted and modified TCM into their own versions, and unfortunately in certain cases folk medicine has crept in. It’s a morass, but the conservation world should not attempt to stigmatize all traditional Asian medicine. Legitimate Asian medicine can in fact serve as an important ally.
As for the typical rhino horn user, I feel like I know him. Born and raised in Korea, I remember older relatives who went beyond the basic Korean version of TCM to believe in mythical powers of animals based on anthropomorphic views. Incidentally, all of these folks had two things in common: they couldn’t care less about animals and they were provincial in their beliefs. It is naïve to think that conservationists can change their attitudes now by educating them about rhinos. Attempts to publicly shame them have only induced resentment.
There is one particular message that might be effective, however. It’s one that tells the truth. And the truth is this: rhino horn demand is being fueled by con artists, not by legitimate medical professionals.
Before rhino horn was banned in 1993 by the TCM regulators in China, it was prescribed for its alleged fever reducing qualities – for treating relatively benign illnesses – and nothing more (rhino horn’s efficacy in reducing fever is questionable, and in any case, there are much more effective and cheaper alternatives available, even within TCM). It is only obvious that the recent cancer cure rumor is being circulated by those involved in the rhino horn trade. Loot, hoard, whisper magical properties about your commodity, repeat… it’s a phenomenally profitable, though wretchedly criminal, business model. Interestingly, this is the view of a TCM organization that happens to be a staunch ally of conservation… Read more here
This is the message that needs to circulate. “You are being conned! Who do you think is spreading the cancer cure rumor? It’s the rhino horn dealers! Such a rumor is a slap in the face to TCM, a 3,000 year-old art of healing!” Not all of us may care about endangered animals, but avoiding being seen as a foolish victim of a con is culture-indifferent.
I digress here… talk of legalizing the rhino horn trade has been around. You don’t need to kill a rhino to get its horn, and the horn grows back. A capitalist by nature, I love the idea on the surface. The money can go back into conservation… I get it. Here is the problem though – if a simple false rumor can stimulate demand for a body part of an endangered species, where could this go? Where does it end? Isn’t telling the truth a better option?
The end game surely is about curtailing demand. The good news is there is a logical argument that should strike at the brain of the rhino horn user (thus far, conservation has targeted his heart) – that they are being defrauded by rumor-mongering criminals and others “on the take.” No need to educate them about rhinos. The trick is to have the effort come from within.
Anybody from Asia willing to raise his/her voice?
[Image: Rhino. Image source: Brandon Daniel/Flickr via a Creative Commons license]