Poaching Campaigns: Missing the Horn’s Point

Patronising is not persuading

Time and time again I read of conservationists’ frustration with demand for horn, scales, and other wildlife body parts used in traditional Asian medicines. This demand is driving species through poaching to extinction. I share that frustration. And I abhor the cruelty and suffering, and the criminal racketeering that supplies the demand. However, campaigners lose my support when they claim that belief in the medicinal power of such items is misplaced ‘because it has no basis in science.’

Rhinoceros horn

Rhinoceros horn, ideally still attached to the rhinoceros

“Rhino horn, made of keratin, the same material as our fingernails and hair, has been used in traditional Chinese medicine. In Vietnam too, many people incorrectly believe that rhino horns can cure cancer or hangover.”

“Anti-horn campaigners point out that rhino horn has no proven medical effect and is composed almost entirely of keratin, the same substance as skin, hair, and nails.”

“Rhino horn is considered a status symbol in Vietnam and China, where the growth of the middle class has led to an explosion in demand for the horn, which is ground down and used as a traditional medicinal cure … but is actually no different from human fingernails.”

“Rhinos, worldwide, are targeted for their horns, which are believed to be medicinal in some Asian countries, even as scientific research has proven that rhino horn has no curative benefits.”

Despite a lack of scientific evidence demonstrating a causative link between turtle consumption and medicinal benefits, many people in China believe they provide benefits such as maintaining youthful beauty in women and improving sexual function in men.”

“The greatest danger to the world’s eight pangolin species has been the belief that their large, overlapping scales — made of keratin, like human fingernails and rhino horn — hold curative powers. … No scientific evidence supports any medicinal benefit from pangolin parts.”

I don’t know if pangolin scales cure cancer or not. Neither does western science. Just because we haven’t found an explanation doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Western science can not explain all sorts of things. It’s work in progress, not an endpoint. In fact, western science can demonstrate that some traditional medicine effects are measurable, even if it can’t yet explain the mechanism.

“Bear bile is prescribed to treat a range of ailments, including hemorrhoids, sore throats, sprains, epilepsy, fever, inflammation, and to clear the liver of toxins. Unlike some traditional medicines, there is evidence that bear bile may be effective in treating many of these conditions, however research has shown similar results with synthetic bile.”

Paradoxically, patronising users of such medicinal techniques surely reduces the chance of influencing them to change their habits. Moreover, it’s not just a foolish and patronising assertion: it spectacularly misses the point.

The true argument is that using any resource beyond its capacity for renewal is borrowing unsustainably from the future. The supply will eventually run out. Whether you want the world to include rhinoceroses or turtles or pangolins for their inherent value or for a medicinal purpose, you are going to be disappointed. That’s basic accounting and consequences.

Where the demand is for status symbols, such as carved ivory, however, that should be challenged directly.

“A number of campaigns are now targeting people across East Asia with those psychological nudges through advertisements and celebrities. They hope to undercut the social prestige of displaying a tiger skin or eating bear paw or ordering pangolin soup. While social change is usually not rapid, it must come fast if it’s to be in time to save Asia’s vanishing natural heritage.”

While we’re at it, we probably should check our own backyard, just on the off-chance that there may be any unsustainable exploitation of our own native species.

This article is also published at Wildlife Articles.

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