Western Sydney University promoting Rhino horn as medicine: Has this contributed to the exponential rise in Rhino poaching?

Something happened in 2008. Something, or a number of things, triggered an exponential rise in the number of rhinos being killed in South Africa. Poaching numbers remained quite low, and was stable for a decade, with only 13 being killed in 2007. But then suddenly, the number jumped to 83 in 2008, followed by an exponential increase every year, reaching a staggering total of 1 175 in 2015 – one Rhino poached every six hours. To explain this will be difficult and, in all likelihood, will be due to a number of factors or events coinciding in 2008. Maybe the global financial crises had something to do with it – people tend to turn to ‘commodities’ in times of financial uncertainty (rhino horn is apparently worth around $60 000/kg). Maybe there was a sudden increase in the popularity of rhino horn as a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in Asian countries. Or maybe effective conservation/anti-poaching efforts of the Indian Rhino in Nepal and India started to pay off and this led to a shift in focus to the African Rhino which inadvertently took its place in TCM – or all of the above factors and much more.

Another possible contributing factor, which I will discuss here, is the growing acceptance of TCM in western countries! For example: Phynova recently advertised a new product as the first traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) being registered in the UK. By directing customers to a separate site for more information regarding their product they ‘accidentally’ linked to a site which ‘advertised’ rhino horn (this link has since been removed). Another example is Western Sydney University, Australia who accepted and published a thesis in 2008, in which they described the current use of Rhino horn as a highly effective medicine, just like you would describe any real medicine. Surely this will have an impact!

But first a bit of background, so please bear with me. There are two ‘opposing’ aspects regarding TCM that most members of the public do not seem to understand well. Not their fault, because the TCM lobby groups are spending a huge amount of effort to keep the lines between these two aspects as blurred as possible. The first aspect is the underlying pseudoscientific TCM principles; the yin and yang and the vitalistic “energy” flow through “meridians” and much more. Scientists have relegated this to the pseudosciences, just like bloodletting, which was seen as a cure-all hundreds of years ago. Unfortunately, the pseudoscientific TCM principles are still with us and based on these principles almost every single TCM modality works! From acupuncture to herbs to animal matter (including rhino horn) – everything is efficacious, safe and cost effective. Evidence for this is that close to a 100% of clinical trials done on TCM in China give positive results. Strange isn’t it! People in China should thus no die of any disease – they have ‘effective’ medicine for everything! This is the world of TCM in a nutshell.

The second aspect of TCM is the application of the modern scientific method to test which of the thousands of TCM modalities are really active, which ones are useless and which ones are dangerous. Decades of investigation have come up empty-handed with one or two exceptions. One notable exception is Artemisia annua which contain a single compound that is highly effective for the treatment of malaria, and once identified and intensely studied, it was taken up into conventional medicine – not the herb, but the compound. If you investigate all the plants in the world you are bound to find some compounds that can be used as medicine – it has nothing to do with TCM principles and it can most definitely not be used as evidence that the TCM principles are correct or that it based on science.

These two aspects are therefore quite different.

In the TCM world just about everything works, but it is not backed up by science. It is a huge industry ($170 billion) and it creates employment for many – something that makes politicians smile. In the modern scientific world, almost nothing in TCM works, and hence it is not profitable at all – you have to investigate thousands of herbs (very expensive) in order to find one useful compound.

Many TCM practitioners and researchers are avidly trying to combine the positives of these two worlds. They focus mainly on the money and employment aspect of the TCM world and try and combine this with the modern scientific approach. They tend to focus on the one example where modern science discovered a useful compound (artemisinin) in the medicinal plant Artemisia annua, which was also coincidently used as an herb in TCM – as evidence that TCM works! Here are some examples:

“To stigmatise all traditional medicine would be unfair. After all, a Chinese medicine practitioner last year won a Nobel prize.” No, a Chinese scientist using the modern scientific method identified artemisinin after testing hundreds or even thousands of different herbs.

This year, Chinese medicine practitioners will be registered in Australia. ….. Chinese herbal medicine is administered routinely in hospitals for many chronic diseases. …… This has led to recognising herbs such as Artemisia as a proven anti-malarial ……” No, the compound artemisinin is a proven anti-malarial!

There has been enormous progress in the last 20 years or so. I am sure you are familiar with the use of one of the Chinese herbs in managing resistant malaria.” No, very little progress and no, the compound artemisinin!

So this is a game that is being played with the simple intention to blur the lines between these two aspects regarding TCM – but the real reason might simply be “A new research-led Chinese medicine clinic in Sydney, better patient outcomes and the potential for Australia to tap into the $170 billion global traditional Chinese medicine market”

Prof Alan Bensoussan the director of the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) and registered in Australia as a TCM and acupuncture practitioner is a champion in blurring this line. Alan has been instrumental in lobbying the Australian regulatory agency that a long tradition of use is all you need to be able to register new products. He was also influential in establishing the Chinese medicine practitioner registry in Australia, in 2012, and thereby legitimising TCM in Australia. He has been actively chipping away at the resistance that the Australian public have against these pseudoscientific healthcare systems such as TCM – one can argue that he has done so quite successfully because they are expanding their operations into the Westmead precinct of Sydney with a new TCM clinic/hospital.

Enough background; so what does all of this have to do with Rhino horn? (and for that matter other endangered species). We have to remember that in the TCM world just about everything works and that includes rhino horn! Searching Western Sydney University’s theses portal for Xijiao (Chinese for Rhino horn) I found a thesis published in 2008 from the NICM and co-supervised by Alan; “Development of an evidence-based Chinese herbal medicine for the management of vascular dementia”

On page 45-46: “Recently, with fast developing science and technologies being applied in the pharmaceutical manufacturing area, more and more herbs or herbal mixtures have been extracted or made into medicinal injections. These have not only largely facilitated improved application to patients, but also increased the therapeutic effectiveness and accordingly reduced the therapeutic courses …… lists the most common Chinese herbal medicine injections used for the treatment of VaD. “

“Xing Nao Jing Injection (for clearing heat toxin and opening brain, removing phlegm) contains ….. Rhinoceros unicornis (Xijiao), …… Moschus berezovskii (Shexiang), …..”

“…. Xing Nao Jing injection has been widely applied in China for stroke and vascular dementia. …. After 1-month treatment intervention, they found the scores in the treatment group increased remarkably, as compared with the control group …… “

They list two endangered species; the Rhino and the Chinese forest musk deer (Moschus berezovskii). But what is truly worrying is that they don’t even mention the endangered status or at least recommend that the non-endangered substitutes, which do exist in the TCM world, should be used instead – or maybe use fingernails as a substitute? It is not discussed at all. Clearly they are stating that using these endangered animals are way more effective than western medicine (the control group) for the treatment of vascular dementia!  This is deplorable to say the least. Statements like this fuels the decimation of this species.  But this shows that they truly believe and support the underlying pseudoscientific principles of TCM – they have to, their ability to tap into the TCM market depends on it!

But is this now really promoting Rhino horn as medicine? Well, the definition of promoting something is; “support or actively encourage (a cause, venture, etc.); further the progress of.” – so I would say, yes. As a scientist you are entitled to discuss historic believes, such as that most people once believed that the earth was flat. But make sure to also state that modern science has shown beyond any doubt that the earth is not flat. If it is stated that the earth is flat without saying that this is incorrect then you would be promoting that idea – and believe it or not, even in 2016, you can find a flat earth society! The same goes for Rhino horn and this is exactly what they have done here. But then again they live in a world where all TCM modalities are effective!

How to solve this problem of growing acceptance of TCM in western countries?  A simple step could be that people like Alan publicly denounce the underlying pseudoscientific TCM principles and make the ‘difficult’ switch to real science! Admittedly, he will have to part with lots of money from the CM industry and his Chinese partners, and maybe not built his new TCM hospital! But for some reason I strongly doubt that this will happen. The NICM have successfully applied a very thin, but beautiful, veneer of political correctness and modernity over the surface of complementary medicine. Anyone who cares to look underneath this veneer will find a rotten ancient pseudoscientific TCM world – in this case the promotion and the use of endangered animals.

After reading chapter two of this thesis one cannot believe that this is from an Australian University and paid for by the Australian taxpayer! The main question though: Can I directly link this thesis with the increase in rhino poaching? This will be very difficult, if not impossible to do. But that is not the problem. Promoting the pseudoscientific principles of TCM in Australia will inevitably enlarge the export market for TCM, and hence, will lead to an increased need for raw materials, including Rhino horn. That Rhino horn has been a banned substance since the 1980’s clearly does not seem to have any impact looking at the poaching statistics.

The fact that the NICM has been linked with rhino horn ‘importers’ in Australia, should clarify the NICMs true view on rhino horn and its magical medicinal properties. In 2006 Yu Long Yu (Sydney, Australia) was sentenced after a large amount of endangered animal material, including Rhino horn, tiger etc, was found in his possession. Because Mr Yu was (is) a business partner of Alan Bensoussan (director of the NICM), Alan was in court to defend his good friend: “Character witnesses – including Alan Bensoussan, director of the Centre for Complementary Medicine Research at the University of Western Sydney – told the court Yu was “absolutely exceptional”. “There are very few clinicians of his ilk in Australia,” Professor Bensoussan said of his friend and sometime business associate of 20 years.” “He [the barrister] said Yu had tried to pull the wool over officials’ eyes.”

One would think that Alan, as a ‘honest scientist’, would try his best to explain to Mr Yu that TCM is based on pre-scientific ideas, and as such, is dangerous not only for people but also for (endangered) animals. But I guess that would be way too much to expect from the NICM.

What can you do about this?

Well, if you are not a politician, Vice Chancellor or work for the regulators, to be honest, not much. One obvious thing that anyone can easily do, is to stop supporting complementary, alternative and integrative therapies and medicines, even if it might look like harmless interventions (a balanced diet, exercise and drinking enough water is far more beneficial than all complementary medicines combined – and it’s a lot cheaper). These people use the sales figures and the number of practitioner visits as evidence of ‘efficacy’, and they use these numbers to lobby politicians, regulators etc. and hence the problem will not only stay with us, it will get bigger.

Another important thing that anyone can do is to inform yourself, because you, or a member of your extended family or friends, will sometime during your lifetime be confronted with fake medicine or fake medical practitioners. The problem is that these people are so good that they can sell ice to an Eskimo, and hence, they can mislead anyone; your age, level of education etc. does not matter. To be well informed will be your only defence.

To inform yourself you can continue to read about my attempts to explain how science is being abused by following my blog at (frankvanderkooy.com) or on Twitter (@frank_kooy) or connect on LinkedIn. A simple and easy thing to do is to use the ‘like’ function, because algorithms pick up on the number of likes and that means that the article will be made available to more people.

Another source of valuable information, with an Australian focus, is the group called ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’ (FSM). They are doing excellent work by providing accurate information regarding healthcare, but they are also doing much more than that. They are trying very hard to persuade Australian universities, politicians and regulators to stop their support of pseudoscientific healthcare systems. To join the 1100 scientists and concerned academics/healthcare professionals you can add your voice by becoming a friend of FSM or follow them on Twitter (@FriendsOfSciMed) or FaceBook. Their newsletters detailing all their efforts with universities, regulators and politicians also comes highly recommended. You can subscribe here. And again, use the ‘Like’ function because it actually does mean something.

And then, finally, the website of Prof. Edzard Ernst in the UK. Prof Ernst was the first professor of complementary medicine and he has many decades of experience, which he now shares via his website. This information is invaluable and deals with specific complementary medicines but also with how people around the globe are being misled by pseudoscientists. He has also written many books (info on his website) dealing with this subject – it comes highly recommended. Twitter @EdzardErnst

11 thoughts on “Western Sydney University promoting Rhino horn as medicine: Has this contributed to the exponential rise in Rhino poaching?

  1. Hi there,

    The following rebuttal was posted on Social Media in response to article by Frank Van Der Kooy. Although it is critical to expose unscrupulous practices in the research of complementary medicine, it is also crucial to publish rebuttals for balanced and transparent discourse which is apparently the aim of the Professor Edzard Ernst and Frank Van Der Kooy. The following was penned by an academic at Australian University academic at Sydney University, Dr Joanna Harnett.

    Hi all,
    After my initial surprise and horror (desired effect achieved by the blogger) that any Australian University would investigate the role of an endangered species (plant or animal) in the treatment of disease prompted me to explore the validity of claims in this blog.

    The research being accused of promoting rhino horn use is the basis of a PhD thesis that contains a literature review of vascular dementia and current treatments. This is followed by a systematic review of the published literature on the use of Chinese and complementary medicines in the treatment of dementia. One paragraph in the >250 page thesis reports the findings of a formula containing rhino horn. The students review conclusion states: “In summary, although the outcomes of clinical trials conducted using TCM on VaD have been positive, it is difficult to accept these findings because no strong scientific evidence to support CHM use is available. Many problems, such as publication bias, poor randomisation, lack of attention to blinding, poorly defined outcome measures, and weak statistical analysis were noted. The quality of TCM trials must be improved urgently.”
    The review discussion would have been strengthened by deploring the use of rhino horn.

    The review forms the basis of a well-designed and rigorously conducted RCT that specially states the EXCLUSION of any endangered plant or animal in the formulation used as a criteria for the study.

    Importantly, Gingko, Ginseng and Crocus are trialled in this study NOT rhino horn.

    How the blogger even found rhino horn in the document and extrapolated that the UWS was promoting and potentially contributing to the use of rhino horn is very unclear.

    I have spoken with Alan Bensoussan on a number of occasions and like most people I hold him in high regard. I would have been very disappointed had the claims being mad been true. I fear a political agenda predates the basis of this blog rather than a genuine concern for any ethical or scientific misconduct by the UWS, the PhD student or his supervisors.


  2. This article is about a main issue, the full support of the pseudoscientific principles of TCM, and one example, the effect of this on Rhino poaching. In your comments the main issue is not addressed at all, and you only focus on the example. And this is to be expected.

    My aim is very simple – to expose pseudoscientists and to protect science (and maybe even the Rhino). And yes, it is indeed shocking to physically see the damage that is being done when “scientists” support a pseudoscience such as TCM.

    “The review discussion would have been strengthened by deploring the use of rhino horn.”

    If I write a sentence along the lines of; “Rhino horn has been shown to be remarkably active against disease X” and I publish this in the public domain without specifically saying anything else regarding the use of Rhino horn, then surely I should not be surprised if someone accuse me of promoting Rhino horn as medicine? This is basically what they did because they cannot say (or put on paper) that rhino horn is ineffective. Or for that matter that most of TCM, including acupuncture, is ineffective. Because that goes in against the pseudoscientific principles of TCM. And here we have the main issue again – the full support of the pseudoscientific principles.

    “The review forms the basis of a well-designed and rigorously conducted RCT that specially states the EXCLUSION of any endangered plant or animal in the formulation used as a criteria for the study.”

    It does not matter if they physically used Rhino horn or not. That they had to tick a box that they won’t use endangered animals in their study tells me that they knew exactly what is going on. Why then didn’t they say anything specifically regarding rhino horn? Everyone knows that using Rhino horn is an extremely controversial topic and they do too!

    “Importantly, Gingko, Ginseng and Crocus are trialled in this study NOT rhino horn.
    How the blogger even found rhino horn in the document and extrapolated that the UWS was promoting and potentially contributing to the use of rhino horn is very unclear.”

    It is in the public domain and it is very easy to find but then again who cares how I found it – it is completely beyond the point!! Please address the main issue of this article – the full support of the pseudoscientific principles of TCM!!

    “I have spoken with Alan Bensoussan on a number of occasions and like most people I hold him in high regard. I would have been very disappointed had the claims being mad been true. I fear a political agenda predates the basis of this blog rather than a genuine concern for any ethical or scientific misconduct by the UWS, the PhD student or his supervisors.”

    Are you serious? Did they or did they not state that Rhino horn, as part of a formulation, is active against disease X. They did! Did they or did they not state clearly and concisely that rhino horn is ineffective, it’s banned, it’s an endangered animal etc. They did not! So, please be disappointed because the claims made are indeed true. Alan is held in high regard by pseudoscientists, but not by scientists. It is unethical that a University support pseudo-sciences for the sake of funding – please read my other blog posts for many more examples. This article only gives one example of the impact that pseudoscientists have on society, in this case on endangered wildlife.


Comments are closed.