Why Are Rhino Horns Twice as Valuable as Gold?

The price of gold has hit all-time highs recently, touching $1,800 an ounce as the stock market swooned last Wednesday. But there’s another commodity that’s enjoying an even bigger bull market these days: rhino horns. According to a recent study by Kenya-based ivory expert Esmond Martin, and his colleague Lucy Vigne, the ivory trade is hotter than ever, fueled by booming demand in China, where it is coveted for its supposed medicinal purposes. The study found that the number of ivory items on sale in southern China has more than doubled since 2004. And most of it is traded illegally.

As The Guardian’s Esther Addley recently reported, not only has the rising Chinese demand led to a surge in African poaching, but a sudden rise in thefts of antique rhino horns from European museums as well. Over the last six months there have been 20 thefts across Western Europe, and victims include the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences and the Educational Museum in Haslemere, Surrey.

Behind the crime wave is a surge in demand from the far east and European Asian communities for powdered rhino horn, which is used in traditional Chinese medicines. It is valued as a remedy for everything from fevers and headaches to cancer, and demand is so intense it has pushed the value of horn to £60,000 per kilogram – twice the value of gold.

The theft of antique rhino horns, however, seems quaint compared to the poaching that has accompanied a higher demand for rhino remedies. In another recent article in The Guardian, Greg Neale and James Burton report:

There has also been a dramatic surge in rhino poaching across Africa. The price of rhino horn has soared in the far east where it is used in alternative medicine as a cure for everything from nightmares to dysentery. In South Africa alone, where horn is worth more per gram than cocaine, the monitoring network “Traffic” reported that 333 rhinos were killed last year, and 193 in the first six months of this year. In 2007, only 13 rhinos were poached.

So is there any actual scientific evidence to the medicinal powers of rhino horns? Not really. From a 2008 Nature article:

In 1990, researchers at Chinese University in Hong Kong found that large doses of rhino horn extract could slightly lower fever in rats (as could extracts from Saiga antelope and water buffalo horn), but the concentration of horn given by a traditional Chinese medicine specialist are many many times lower than used in those experiments. In short, says Amin, you’d do just as well chewing on your fingernails.

And this 2010 National Geographic article does a nice job of laying out the extensive research that’s been done debunking the rhino-horn as medicine theory.

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

 

COMMENTS: 14

View All Comments »
  1. Mike B says:

    Quick! Someone call Ron Paul!!

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2
  2. Wendy Voelker says:

    Rhino horns are not made of ivory – they are made of keratin. Ivory is composed of dentin.
    The last sentence in the quote from the Nature article illustrates this well – rhino horns are similar to fingernails. Ivory is more similar to teeth.

    Elephant ivory is dentin.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 0
    • joe walker says:

      Yeah- this seems to be my biggest concern with the article: the blending of rhino horns and elephant ivory stats..

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  3. RGJ says:

    Googling around, it looks like rhino horn is most famed as a aphrodisiac. Being an American, I personally think buying a bit of Viagra and some coke with that gold and trolling with your new Porshe 911 will have much better results than rhino horn.

    And I volunteer to participate in the experiment.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 3
  4. James says:

    Humm… A new market for fake/cloned rhino horn? Shouldn’t be that difficult, starting with say cow horns…

    And why not rhino farming?

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
    • Melinda says:

      Rhinos do not breed well in captivity, if at all. Therefore, 98% percent of rhino horn sold on the black market today comes from rhinos that were poached from national parks and nature sanctuaries – at great cost to those trying to protect this critically endangered animal.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2
    • Tammy says:

      excellent point and if poaching wasn’t so rampant more farmers would invest and the rhino would be saved from extinction. but the most radical intervention would be the lifting of the ban in the trade of rhino horn. legalising a controlled trade would most certainly curb the poaching and make farming rhinos very attractive. rhino horn regrows 2 – 4 cms per year and farming is a real option – certainly more feasible than trying to change centuries old beliefs of whether it does or does not have medicinal properties

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 4
  5. Uthor says:

    “This just in, Nature says that chewing on your fingernails cures fever!”

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  6. MW says:

    Flooding the market with fake rhino horn seems the most sensible response. You might even be able to infuse your fake with rhino DNA. I’d guess powdered horn to be easy to fake, but bulk horn much harder.

    Another response I’ve heard of is that park rangers tranquilize the rhinos and cut off their horns, so that they are no longer a target for poachers.

    I’ve also heard some years ago that it turned out that the major market for rhino horn was not Chinese medicine but Yemeni ceremonial dagger handles. That may now be out of date.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  7. Doug M says:

    It seems to me that a rising price of rhino horn would lead some enterprising individuals to more efficiently extract the value of rhino than the current model, which is to let the poachers steal it.

    In the last 30 years one would have thought that people would be farming rhino, or selling the licence to harvest rhino at such a level that there would be a stronger incentive to fight the poachers.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  8. JV07 says:

    Bringing to your attention a concern long-raised over the integrity of the work of Esmond Martin. NIce chap, but woeful research methods.

    “The study found that the number of ivory items on sale in southern China has more than doubled since 2004. And most of it is traded illegally.”

    The research is questionable without an idea of ivory volume, quality, age and of course a spectrometer and rhino DNA trail …

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0