In traditional Chinese medicine, shaved or ground rhino horn has been used for centuries to cure a long list of ailments: fever, rheumatism, gout, snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, and food poisoning.
Over the past few years, rhino horn has even been suggested to cure cancer. However, like most purported cure-all remedies, rhino horn does not live up to its reputation.
Dr. Albert Lim Kok Hooi, a Malaysian oncologist, remarked “To all this, I say that something that works for everything usually works for nothing. I also say that something that has been used for hundreds or thousands of years does not make it right.”
Indeed, several scientific tests have been commissioned to test the assumptions and educate the public about the alleged curative properties of rhino horn. Studies by researchers at Hoffmann La Roche (in 1983), the Chinese University of Hong Kong (in 1990), and the Zoological Society of London (in 2008) arrived at the same conclusion: rhino horn contains no medicinal properties. None whatsoever.
My friend Dr. Harold Varmus—recipient of the Nobel Prize for his research on cancer and the current director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute—observed that “for rhino horn powder, we have no rationale for its use and no evidence for any benefits.”
He added, “if I had advanced cancer, resistant to conventional treatments, I’d be taking my chances with new drugs that have a basis in science—not with an equally, if not more, expensive horn powder about which only one thing is certain: an extraordinary creature will have suffered and died to produce it.”
There is no scientific proof that rhino horn is an effective anti-cancer therapy. Nevertheless, some have called for scientific evidence proving that rhino is not beneficial for the treatment of cancer or any other ailment. This may be a clever debating point, but the truth is that proving a negative assertion is impossible.
There are traditional medicines that have proven to be effective for treating a variety of diseases and have saved millions of lives. For instance, two of the major drugs used to treat malaria—quinine and artemisinin—originate from traditional Amazonian and Chinese medicine. And, willow bark extract containing salicylic acid (the active ingredient in Aspirin) has been used effectively since the time of Hippocrates to alleviate headaches, pains, and fevers. But, like all remedies, traditional medicine is of value only when its use is rooted in facts as opposed to fads, such as the supposed anti-cancer properties of rhino horn.
Moreover, international law prohibits the killing of endangered animals for any purpose, including for medicine. That’s why patients must be careful to ensure that their medicinal choices—whether traditional or not—are based on reputable science, have a history of effectiveness, and do not threaten endangered animals.
The senseless killing of rhinos is not only an act of cruelty and immorality, but also leads sick people to invest hope—and large sums of money—in a fake cure in lieu of effective anti-cancer therapies. If it continues, many people will die along with many rhinos, all needlessly.
US Under Secretary Robert D. Hormats