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Can rhinos cure cancer?

Richard Black | 19:18 UK time, Monday, 15 March 2010

Black rhinosLast June, a group of five men drove into South Africa's Addo National Park and held up the rangers' station at gunpoint.

They emerged with a small consignment of ivory and rhino horn worth an estimated 850,000 rand - about £75,000, or $114,000.

The rhino horn - which came from animals that had died naturally - was probably destined for Vietnam, where the popular folk tale about its capacity to boost powers in the bedroom has been augmented by a belief that it can cure cancer.

Last year, a Vietnamese diplomat was recalled to Hanoi after being filmed apparently buying rhino horn outside her embassy in Pretoria.

The Addo Park hold-up is perhaps the most striking event to date in what is, by all measures, an escalation in the illegal wildlife trade.

Put together a dwindling resource (in some important species, at any rate) with a growing demand and capacity to pay, and there is only one outcome.

It's a trend that has just been raised at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Doha, Qatar, where UN agencies have warned again about the urgent plight of the tiger.

Across all sub-species, only about 3,200 remain in the wild. That is considerably fewer than exist in captivity - in the farms and breeding centres of East Asia, and in zoos across the world.

Forgive me if you've heard it before, but to me it is still a staggering statistic that if you were to pick a tiger on the face of the earth at random, the odds are that you would be picking one born and bred in captivity.

Wild tigers now exist mainly in small, fragmented populations - a pattern that promotes lack of genetic diversity and hence is often a step on the road to extinction.

Year of the tiger celebrationsWhereas some governments have stepped up to the plate, all the links in the chain that the wildlife gangsters need appear to be functioning well enough.

Tigers can be poached in India and transported through Nepal to China; rhinos can be shot in one African country, their horns shipped out from a second to an address in Thailand, Vietnam or China.

I had a chat with John Sellar, who heads CITES's enforcement operation.

"It's now four decades since we realised the tiger was in trouble," he noted.

"We've spent millions of dollars on it and we have failed miserably - I like to be optimistic but we have to ask ourselves whether we are really committed."

In south-east Asian countries, he said there was now evidence of a demand for tiger meat.

As a former policeman, he said he found the situation incredible.

Conservation organisations are routinely finding evidence of abuse, of poaching and illegal trading - and many police forces and customs authorities just aren't acting on it, as one presumes they would if the cargoes contained heroin or AK-47s.

As to the price of rhino horn in one of Hanoi's unlicensed (and ineffective) "cancer clinics", Mr Sellar would not be drawn, suggesting that the information could encourage further poaching.

The black rhino, by the way, is already listed as critically endangered.

Often we envisage the solution to environmental problems as being about laws and policies, or markets and incentives, or scientific research and public awareness.

Here is an equation far simpler.

Unless police and customs forces stop the gangsters involved in this business, there will be no more tigers and no more black rhinos in the wild: that's it.


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  • 1. At 00:45am on 16 Mar 2010, LarryKealey wrote:


    Thank you for the very enlightening article. I knew a lot of the facts - particularly the Black Rhino, which has been endangered since I was a kid. I knew tigers were in trouble, but did not imagine it to be so bad.

    I fear a great deal of the problem lies with corruption and the huge amounts of monies involved. I also think the only realistic answer involves creating preserves which are truly protected.

    As was opinion regarding Diego Garcia - let the sanctuary be created and lets leave all the people out of it - no fishing, no diving, no swimming, period. I would like to see large preserves of the same type in parts of Africa, Asia and South America.

    How about establishing a large preserve and have it patrolled by Army Helicopters - with no one permitted inside, they could just use anyone they see as 'target practice'.

    The cycle of poverty and corruption must also be broken. When a man is offered more than a year's wages, and his family is hungry, it is hard to turn down a job which just involves hunting an animal. Poverty and ignorance go hand in hand, along with corruption and none can be addressed without addressing the others.

    I fear it is the only approach that will work. First, protect the source - then cut out the links in the chain - which will be much harder to accomplish. Once the animal has been killed - it doesn't really matter if you track down everyone else involved (except as a deterrent to others) - the animal is gone, forever gone.

    We hear constantly about the Polar Bear - but the bear numbers have increased greatly since being placed on the endangered species list and protected. We never see commercials about the plight of the Black Rhino or the few remaining subspecies of tigers from the WWF. It is truly a shame.

    Related to your article on Biodiversity in January - you hit the nail on the head - without stopping habitat loss we cannot stop the tragic loss of biodiversity.

    We have the technology - just as the US Navy can tell you by name every pair of whales within 500 miles of Diego Garcia and whether they are feeding or mating at the moment - we could deploy the appropriate technology to protect a wildlife preserve - identify every heat source and what kind of an animal it is - or if it a human, etc...

    We need to set up large preserves representing every environment and habitat and set the completely aside - no ecotourism, no hiking, no intrusion whatsoever except for limited scientific research. Around such 'core' reserves, we could have significant 'buffer' zones, open for ecotourism and the like. Without this type of approach - pristine ecosystems which are held completely 'hands off' I fear we don't stand a chance at saving any rhinos or tigers (much less the Black Rhino) and so many other species.

    I fear that the will is not there - and the Black Rhino and the Tigers will soon just be a memory - along with many other species to come.

    I may sound a bit harsh, but is it not time to get harsh? It is a harsh world out there - its time we made a real difference.

    Again, thank you for the insightful article.



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  • 2. At 01:05am on 16 Mar 2010, HumanityRules wrote:

    Better than criminalising Africans might be spreading a little wealth in SE Asia. Giving the multinational pharmaceutical behemoths more opportunity to turn a profit in these countries by supplying real anti-cancer drugs is probably a better way to dry up the demand.

    The pasty faced belief in traditional medicine and suspicious rejection of modern medicine by western liberal middle classes doesn't help in a move to a more enlightened approach to health.

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  • 3. At 06:53am on 16 Mar 2010, simon-swede wrote:

    This topic is also addressed in another blog whose author photgraphed a duty-free shop at Madrid's international airport has reproductions of all sorts of banned wildlife items on display and for sale.

    Presumably no endangered sppecies were harmed in the manufacture of the reproductions, but as the author points out it does send a rather bizarre message about trade in and possession of such items.


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  • 4. At 07:25am on 16 Mar 2010, Ben Burrows wrote:

    While this is a very good article, and I completely agree with what it says. This comes as no surprise to me. There are a whole host of reasons for the decline of large mammals all over the world and unfortunately the two at the top are also the two issues that will not go away. Poaching and habitat destruction.

    What can be done about this? The decline of the tiger and black rhino has been known for decades and yet the problem is only getting worse. Eastern cultures argue that it is tradition (an argument that the Japanese like to use also), but this is a weak argument. There is no evidence that rhino horn works as an aphrodisiac, or cures cancer. Those governments need to spend time educating the public about many of these 'traditional medicines'. There are two real issues that I believe need to be addressed before we stop the decline of these species. Firstly, education of the public. This is in the eastern countries where there is such a high demand, in the west where there is much more money and political clout, and finally in the countries where these species originate. Secondly, the policing of the international laws need to be enforced stronger. The loss of biodiversity is one of the biggest issues that we face. There are a host of reasons why we should preserve all species. There are economic reasons. Some studies suggest that the natural world contributes around US$90 trillion of services free of charge. It makes no sense for us to bite the hand feeds us so to speak. Then there is the moral issue surrounding the loss of biodiversity. We are only one of millions of species on this planet, and we have an ethical responsibility to preserve it. I know that I do not want my grand-children accusing ours and our parents generation of destroying the world we live in.

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  • 5. At 09:32am on 16 Mar 2010, sensiblegrannie wrote:

    The trouble with a small proportion of the very rich and powerful members of the planet, is their constant need for re-affirmation of wealth and power and their craving for novelty. If something is horribly rare and almost impossible to obtain, they want it. The 'fix' only lasts for a while as the novelty wears off and new cravings are sought. The more rare and unobtainable the object of desire is, the more it will be sought, at ANY cost.

    The poachers are supplying 'fix' for the craving and in turn (although they may also be only trying to provide food and shelter for their families) they will be poaching in order to obtain their 'fix' (which could be a way out of poverty) symbols of wealth, power and success, such as gold chains, guns and modern technology.

    We all suffer from this syndrome to one degree or other. We all crave for a certain amount of novelty in our lives but thankfully, most of us have less extreme requirements. Every time we purchase an object or food item from somewhere exotic and 'other' we are doing the same dubious thing, but on a lesser scale.

    Get rid of the cravings, get rid of the problem.

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  • 6. At 09:50am on 16 Mar 2010, blunderbunny wrote:

    @Richard - Great Article

    Preserving diverse habitats and all the flora and fauna that they contain should really be our primary focus. How one goes about doing it, other than directly buying it, I'm not sure.

    There are various schemes where one can purchase a small amount of rainforest (I’ve previously posted a link to the sky/wwf scheme, but there are others. A quick Google will bring up a few), but these schemes would need to be greatly extended if they are to be of any real use worldwide and governments rather than just individuals would need to get involved. In my very humble opinion, such deals to preserve forests are about the only useful thing that might have come out of Copenhagen.

    In the past I've suggested trying to educate indigenous peoples to value and protect their own local environment, but the last time I suggested this I was accused of colonialism.

    So I'd like to open that back up. If not education, then what?

    Happy to pay indigenous peoples of leave habitat alone if that's what it takes, happy to support reserves with sustainable hunting if that's what it takes, I guess even farming might be acceptable if as a result we could preserve what remains of the wild populations.

    But our inaction, guarantees only one thing, the fairly short-term extinction of the wild populations – it’s a clear and present danger – to steal a line from a film…

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  • 7. At 10:38am on 16 Mar 2010, blunderbunny wrote:

    A couple of years ago we did visit the Tiger Temple in Thailand and we spent the day with the monks feeding and looking after the Tigers. I guess at a push more schemes like this could be set up.

    But we've been reading some slightly alarming stuff about the Tiger Temple recently, so it would appear that these sorts of schemes might need to be more carefully monitored and better funded in the future to ensure that the animals in question are not being overly used, abused or mistreated.

    They are definitely magnificent creatures and we should be doing much, much more to preserve them for future generations.

    But we shouldn't forget that all diversity is valuable, not just the various poster children - cue the traditional posts on small pox and river blindness.........

    There's a lot that we can do, the green movement needs to re-focus its energies towards its more traditional aims, this obsession with a single AGW cause, is akin to Nero fiddling whilst Rome burned.

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  • 8. At 10:48am on 16 Mar 2010, JamieHeaney wrote:

    Why do these articles of extinction and destruction not bother me anymore? Looking at a country's road map with all the red and yellow splotches around the metropolis' is like watching a disease spread across the world. Why does it not bother me anymore, when I watch people blame the rich, blame the poor, blame anything other than their own mindless habits that spread this disease? WE are causing mass extinction, not THEM.

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  • 9. At 12:45pm on 16 Mar 2010, ghostofsichuan wrote:

    In China, every medical school has both a course for modern medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine. In Asia these beliefs about curative powers of plants and animals have been accepted for centuries. The young moving to the cities are leaving all this behind and the change of culture will take some time. As the tradtional medicine has worked to some degree for certain conditions it is difficult to change these behaviors. Modern medicine is not very old and access is limited by money. It is mainly the dalliances of the rich who will pay high prices and the poor in other lands that support this market. Like drugs, animal hides and furs, whales, etc.. where there is a market there will be a supplier. It is the small populations and sources of these items that increase their value. The natures of urban and rural Asia are very different and in the West the only thing presented is the modern cities. The small villages and the dirt roads and little or no government services is the reality. This may be endangered as well. The assoication of animal power and human beings obtaining such powers by the intake from these animals is a very old custom. There remains a difference for human beings between what we know and what we believe.

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  • 10. At 03:30am on 17 Mar 2010, JAKR wrote:

    Hello Richard,
    I am so relieved and encouraged to see this issue being addressed so openly. I am an East African living in Hanoi, Vietnam. I constantly receive urgently whispered requests from highly professional Vietnamese people to smuggle 'rhino horn' from my country to Vietnam, when I go for my home leave. I have tried countless numbers of times to advice them that not only is it illegal and I would never even consider such a thing, but that the horn is actually similar to cartilage that has absolutely no healing powers what so ever. I got a request as recent as 3 weeks ago with a promise of a good pay out chunk, and again I referred them to the BBC story of the Vietnamese Embassy official in South Africa, who not only caused embarrassment to their country by being caught on tape, but was even recalled, thus admitting that it was illegal. They know that what they are asking is illegal, but that does not stop them. They are so bent in their belief that just a grain of horn, can cure the worst from of cancer and other ailments. I pointed out that, if such benefits were real from consuming parts of rhino horn, we Africans would have been using it ourselves, but we don't because there is nothing to it. Another Vietnamese acquaintance admitted to me that she had spent &1,000 on tiger bone for her sick mother, without any relief. I will be going home again this Summer, and the offers have already started rolling in. I believe that the groups responsible for Environmental Conservation here, need to focus on this area to educate the Vietnamese people that it is all bogus.

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  • 11. At 1:11pm on 17 Mar 2010, jazbo wrote:

    This highlights why the C02 obsession is moving attention away from the fact that our own species ignorance, selfishness, greed and desperation kills more of our planets beautiful species than anything else.

    Lets face facts, while the ignorant continue to want to eat, heal themselves and display their wealth using such finite resources, they do not stand a chance.

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  • 12. At 3:39pm on 17 Mar 2010, manysummits wrote:

    To Ghostofsichuan #9 & JAKR #10, and Happy St. Pats to All:

    "There remains a difference for human beings between what we know and what we believe." (Ghost)

    "I believe that the groups responsible for Environmental Conservation here, need to focus on this area to educate the Vietnamese people that it is all bogus." (JAKR)

    Ghost, the amount of disinformation, for want of a better word, that persists to this day, in our world, is so great as to be potentially overwhelming, producing paralysis and inaction.

    Yesterday I took the initiative, and had a meeting at a local University with their Eco-Tourism department, to explore the idea of "climate change tours for a skeptical public."

    I was received unexpectedly warmly, and at one point was asked if I would care to address the University on the issue of climate change etc...

    This took me rather by surprise, and I am still in shock.

    I have now contacted Earth Sciences here, at the behest of Eco-Tourism, and am awaiting a reply. It would be a joint effort.

    I think it interesting that science explores the natural world, and so does the outdoor pursuits' program at universities like this one.

    There was a time before I blogged on this site, though it seems long ago.

    As it tangentially addresses some of the concerns in this thread, I thought I would relate something I wrote on my website, when I still had it, and which I am considering using as the Mission Statement for

    \\\ Operation Cloudrunner - High Road to the Future ///.

    First, this is where it relates to this blog:

    "It's now four decades since we realised the tiger was in trouble," he noted. ["John Sellar, who heads CITES's enforcement operation."]

    "We've spent millions of dollars on it and we have failed miserably - I like to be optimistic but we have to ask ourselves whether we are really committed."

    Here is what I wrote on March 27, 2008. I was angry at the time - and nothing has changed.

    Fight Back (Mission Statement)

    "Let's not pussyfoot around. I think our civilization (possible expletive!) The good ship 'Western Way' is a failure, and is about to become a disaster. We have plenty of smart people, all seemingly impotent. War, environmental degradation, and the hemorraghing of our humanity mark us as a failed society, unfit to live properly, or lead others. We don't even know how to eat, and too many of us can't be bothered to vote.

    Most of us are physically and mentally compromised from birth, and until we fully realize this, and do something about it, things will only get worse. There is little point in tinkering with the 'Western Way,' we need to replace it.

    My life, viewed in retrospect, seems to me a fractal of our culture. I am going to trace the course of my own journey, and that of my family and friends, and draw comparisons between our path, and that of western civilization. I've made a few discoveries along the way which I'd like to share with you - and submit to public scrutiny.

    Let the chips fall where they may."

    - Manysummits, Calgary, Canada -

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  • 13. At 02:21am on 18 Mar 2010, xtragrumpymike2 wrote:

    5. At 09:32am on 16 Mar 2010, sensibleoldgrannie wrote:

    "The trouble with a small proportion of the very rich and powerful members of the planet, is their constant need for re-affirmation of wealth and power and their craving for novelty.
    We all suffer from this syndrome to one degree or other. We all crave for a certain amount of novelty in our lives but thankfully, most of us have less extreme requirements. Every time we purchase an object or food item from somewhere exotic and 'other' we are doing the same dubious thing, but on a lesser scale.

    Get rid of the cravings, get rid of the problem."

    I've taken out bits of Sensiblegranny's contribution but only because I wanted to agree in principle with what she says.

    Put the same thing another way.

    Mahatma Gandhi......"Nature can supply our needs but not our greed".

    Or my own personal observation........"I have much more "stuff" than I need but no where near as much as I want".

    It is so easy to identify any problem as being caused by "some-one else", but as Sensiblegranny reminds us........"We are all doing the same dubious thing ourselves" in one way or another.

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  • 14. At 09:24am on 18 Mar 2010, rossglory wrote:

    manysummits, i think the idea of reviewing one's life is very appealing. bowmanthebard now and again highlights something relevant and cogent and he definitely reminded me of my days studying philosophy. then i questioned who and why i was a lot and i never came to any real conclusion (possibly not surprisng!).

    a review seems a good way to try to fit things together (i wish i kept a diary!).

    but at the same time, although i'm not entirely sure how i got here i'm convinced that i need to 'act' in some way to become 'part of the solution'. that is why i did my degree, now i just need the impetus to make the next big step :o)

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  • 15. At 09:26am on 18 Mar 2010, rossglory wrote:

    "This highlights why the C02 obsession is moving attention away from the fact that our own species ignorance, selfishness, greed and desperation kills more of our planets beautiful species than anything else."

    it never did for me. i've always try to perceive all the issues together. but what is striking is that the solution to most of them is pretty similar....and unpopular in some quarters.

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  • 16. At 04:54am on 19 Mar 2010, Steve wrote:

    Every day brings new horrors. Check out this link. Very scary people.

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  • 17. At 12:48pm on 19 Mar 2010, john wrote:

    this may sound like an extreme measure but wouldn't it make sense for conservation groups to employ a progam where by they systematically track - sedate - remove horns/tusks - destroy the ivory on site -- although this may be of a slight disadvantage to any species it would protect them from poaching at least in the short term

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  • 18. At 12:51pm on 19 Mar 2010, john wrote:

    a less extreme measure might be to develop a special dye to stain ivory and ruin it, this could be applied to all endangered species with tusks/horns, nobody seems to have any common sense, a little imagination please

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  • 19. At 11:38am on 14 Apr 2010, jabbajabbahey wrote:

    <RICHPOST> I must say I'm very sorry to hear the experiences of JAKR in Hanoi, I've always felt the attitudes towards animals in Vietnam were different between the North and the South of the country and I've certainly seen a fair bit of improvement over the past couple of years living in Saigon in terms of how animals are treated.<BR />'Wildlife' restaurants used to be plentiful and it was common to see animals in small cages being sold on the roadside - however both of these types of businesses have now disappeared from view, and its common to see campaining posters from conservation NGOs on the walls of restaurants. It is sad to hear that the trade continues out of sight, but I hope that these disappearances are signs that attitudes really are changing.<BR />As a country <a href=[Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]>Vietnam</a> is stunningly beautiful, all the more so in the few areas where old-growth rainforest still survives, such as Cat Tien National park where there are thought to be just 4 Javanese rhinos left. Many people working in the park were poachers due to a need to support their families, but are now paid to protect the wildlife, and are passionate about their cause. Lets hope more initiatives like this can help protect that animals - but in the end for real change to occur we need real changes in attitudes. </RICHPOST>

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  • 20. At 3:52pm on 08 May 2010, Mark wrote:

    Its hard to believe that people still believe that rhinos horn can cure cancer or tiger's meat promotes bravery. I have read all sorts of ridiculous ideas which people follow, and the price of this is paid by these innocent animals. Besides of spending millions of dollars/pounds for saving these animals, an effort should be made to educate these illiterate people.

    Man is destroying nature for its greed. I agree with what Mahatma Gandhi said - "Nature can supply our needs but not our greed".

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