One more rhino killed in Assam: Why have rhino horns been in demand for centuries?

One more rhino killed in Assam: Why have rhino horns been in demand for centuries?
One more rhino killed in Assam: Why have rhino horns been in demand for centuries?
Written by:

Monalisa Das | The News Minute | February 28, 2015 | 01:07 pm IST 

An adult male rhinoceros was shot dead in Assam's Kaziranga National Park on Friday by poachers, who also mutilated the carcass of the animal while sawing off its horn, states a report by The TelegraphThis is the sixth such incident of rhino-killing in the national park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this year. 

The range officer Puspadhar Buragohain was suspended following the incident and the government has decided to patrol and check vehicles along National Highway 37 that passes through Kaziranga, and National Highway 39 and other roads that lead to Nagaland and Manipur, states the report. 

Rhinos are reportedly being killed with an alarming frequency in Assam- in 2014, 32 rhinos were killed in Assam where as in 2013 the number was 41, states the report. According to Rediff report, a total of 524 rhinos were killed for their horns in Assam between 1986 and 2011.

( Nepalese monk with rhinoceros horn at Samye in Tibet, 1938; Image source: Wikipedia )

However, what is even more ruthless is the way the animal are sometimes killed. Though poachers often shoot the animals dead and then cut off their horns, it has been reported that many a time the pachyderm's horns are sawed off while it is still alive, and then are left to die a painful death. The poachers reportedly also include militants in the state.

A recent survey puts the number of rhinos in Assam to 2,552 rhinos of which an estimated 2,329 are at Kaziranga, states a report by The New Indian Express.  

Why is there a demand for rhino horns? 

Rhino horns have been in demand for centuries now and there is reportedly a huge black market for the trade of rhino horns in South East Asia where one horn can fetch as much as Rs 1 crore. 

In a 2011 report titled, Supply and demand: the illegal rhino horn trade, published on Save The Rhino website, author Jo Shaw writes that 'Trade in rhino horn has a long history, with the earliest records of use in medicine in China going back millennia'.

Initially, they were used to make cups and bowls, as apart from the 'prized' appearance of the material, it was also believed that it could detect alkaloid poisons. Around the 1960-1970's the rhino-horn was mostly in demand for the construction of jambiyas or ceremonial dagger handles, in Yemen.

Though the demand for rhino-horns in other regions declined over time, Shaw writes that it however remained constant in Asia- where the horn was used in making Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Though 'by the mid-1990's all the important rhino horn consumer countries in Asia had banned the substance in their TCM industries', he adds.

In TCM, Shaw writes, 'Rhino horn is believed to be effective in reducing temperature and has commonly been used to treat high fevers and convulsions, to control haemorrhaging and to assist the liver in cleansing the blood of toxins resulting from the intake of alcohol or poison. TCM often prescribes rhino horn in combination with herbs and other traditional ingredients'. 

Shaw, however debunks the common notion that rhino horns are believed to work as an aphrodisiac. He writes, 'It has not, as is widely and falsely propagated, been prescribed as an aphrodisiac'.

Rhino horn is made of keratin, a hard fibrous protein, and both traditional and modern preparation of medicines constituting the horn 'typically involves grinding the horn into a powdered form, which is then placed in hot water to produce a white, cloudy liquid.' 

Apart from being used to display one's affluent status, another common belief for using rhino horn is that it has detoxifying qualities. 

Rhino horns are also said to be sought for the treatment of life threatening diseases such as cancer. 'Although never described in the traditional medical literature, recent popular belief in Viet Nam seemingly promotes rhino horn usage as treatment, and possibly a cure, for life-threatening disease', writes Shaw. 'In reality, evidence strongly suggests that the promotion of miraculous curative powers for rhino horn represents a cynical marketing ploy to increase the profitability of the rhino horn trade', he adds.

(Rhino horn in packaging horns, seized by UK Border Agency, stolen for sale from Colchester Zoo; Image Source: Wikipedia)

Studies, however, point out that there is no scientific evidence to support claims of rhino horn's usefulness as a medicine.

A report based on a study states that 'Testing also confirmed that “rhino horn, like fingernails, is made of agglutinated hair” and “has no analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmolytic nor diuretic properties” and “no bactericidal effect could be found against suppuration and intestinal bacteria.”'

“There is no evidence at all that any constituent of rhino horn has any medical property. Medically, it’s the same as if you were chewing your own nails,” the report quoted Dr. Amin at the Zoological Society of London as saying.

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