Of Quackery, Rhinos and Tigers

Last week’s Economist noted an almost thirty-fold increase in the poaching of South African rhinos between 2008 and 2011. As with the ongoing surge in elephant poaching, much of the blame has fallen on Chinese demand.

Last year 438 rhinos, nearly all of them of the white (meaning wide-lipped) species, were known to have been illegally killed in South Africa, their horns often hacked off while they were still alive. That compares with an annual average of just 15 before 2008. This year more than 200 have already been poached, an average of 50 a month, with the year’s final tally expected to top 600. If that trend continues, more rhinos will be being poached than born by 2016, sending the world’s population into a decline that could be irreversible. Around 20,000 of the surviving white rhinos on earth live in South Africa ….

Long prized in South-East Asia for its supposed medicinal and aphrodisiac vim, rhino horn is now being peddled as a cure for cancer too. With growing wealth in China and Vietnam unaccompanied by growing wisdom, demand seems insatiable. The horn, which is merely agglutinated hair, the same stuff as finger nails, has no pharmacological value. Yet its street price has soared to over $60,000 a kilo, more than for the same weight of cocaine or gold—a proven aphrodisiac.

Other animals are also vulnerable: the Associated Press reported on Wednesday that Thai police had seized two tiger carcasses thought to be bound for China. But with interception rates low—around 10% for internationally trafficked ivory, according to Interpol—measures to cut off supply must be accompanied by efforts to reduce demand. In the case of elephants, this can involve challenging the widespread myth that tusks drop out naturally and harmlessly. At Rectified.name, Karlis Rokpelnis, an ethnoecology PhD candidate at Beijing’s Minzu University, suggests hard research, however unprofitable, into the supposed medicinal properties of rhino horn and other exotic ingredients. Rokpelnis also draws on recent stories of human baby flesh pills reportedly seized by South Korean customs, and the theme of cannibalism in historical ethnic smears and Lu Xun’s ‘Diary of a Madman’.

While the current media and online furor could — and probably should — be dismissed as one of the many rumors and otherworldly accusations floating around the Internet, it does point to a striking failure of science as it relates to traditional Chinese medicine. How to separate the quackery from the possible, particularly in regards to practices which so abominable as to be nearly unbelievable, but also debunking medical myths involving the use of ingredients — such as bear bile, rhino horn, and tiger portions — which do great harm to biodiversity and the protection of endangered species ….

While the moral impact of a middle-aged man spending prolifically on concoctions to enhance his amorous life seems benign (as long as he stays away from the damn rhinos!), what to make of the 2007 half a year prison term to Guangdong parents who stole another couple’s deceased child to make a healing soup for their sickly child …?

If sound qualitative data of the clinical results of using rare animal species as medicine would be available, this could be used as a way of addressing demand for them directly. After all, who would buy tiger bone liquor if its benefits for sexual potency were shown to be non-existent?

At least one reason might remain. From the BBC’s legendary 2006 report on a Beijing penis restaurant, on a $5,700 tiger penis dish:

“So what does it taste like?” I ask.

“Oh, the same as all the others,” she says blithely.

And does it have any particular potency? “No. People just like to order tiger to show off how much money they have.”

(As Lijia Zhang noted last year in a Guardian opinion piece on the “racist” Western fascination with strange Chinese eating habits, the restaurant’s menu “is not something that runs deep in Chinese culture – there are only two penis restaurants in China, and both belong to the same owner.”)