Why Are Rhino Horns Worth More Than Gold?

What is it about rhino horn that has some believing it possesses powerful medicinal capabilities? What is rhino horn is really made out of?

Rhinoceros horns have been prized in various cultures for thousands of years. In China and other Asian countries, the material is still valued as a component in traditional medicinal remedies. Due to a recent resurgence in demand, a single three-kilogram horn can sell for as much as $300,000.

Because of these prices, poachers have hunted rhinos to near extinction. That's a phrase that gets tossed around a lot, but the current situation is severe. This new surge in demand, especially in Vietnam, has led experts to conclude that the rhinoceros will be extinct in 10 years.

The cruel irony of it all, as Trace Dominguez reports in this DNews special, is that rhino horn almost certainly has no real medicinal value. Its reputation as a cure-all is based on ancient traditional medicine practices that have zero basis in science.

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Rhino horns are similar to hooves in composition, mostly constructed of keratin with some calcium, nitrogen, carbon and melanin. A study out of Ohio University took a closer look and determined that rhino horns are essentially the same as bird beaks or even human fingernails.

Another study published in the Journal of Anatomy went even further, looking for medicinal benefits in keratin from every conceivable angle -- pH, atomic structure, polarization, molecular weight, chemical characteristics, genetic basis, source, evolution. No dice. In short, as far as modern science is concerned, rhino horn has no medical value apart from what are presumably placebo effects.

In 1993, China, Taiwan and South Korea finally banned the use of rhino horn in medicine -- after 3,000 years of use in traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM. The ban reduced demand for a while, but now it's up again thanks in part to its reputation as -- of all things -- a hangover cure.

For wildlife advocates, it's a tragic and infuriating state of affairs. On the bright side, the effort to stop rhino poaching has generated some interesting strategies. For instance, check out Laura Ling's new report on an effort to replicate rhino horn via biotechnology and 3D printing.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

The Atlantic: Why Does Rhino Horn Cost $300,000? Because Vietnam Thinks It Cures Cancer And Hangovers

National Geographic: Rhino Horn: All Myth, No Medicine

Journal Of Chinese Medicine: Alternatives To Rhino Horn