Rhino horn as lifesaving medicine – do the NICM really believe this? (the things people do for $10 million bucks!)

Rhino horn as lifesaving medicine – do the NICM really believe this? (the things people do for $10 million bucks!)

My previous blog posts (you can find it here and here) discussed the pseudoscientific traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) world in which all medicines are effective, including rhino horn and other endangered species, as opposed to the modern scientific world in which very few, if any, of these TCM modalities are effective. However, the main aim of the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) is to ‘integrate’ these pseudoscientific healthcare systems (TCM, acupuncture, homeopathy etc.) with modern science based healthcare systems. This is very worrying to say the least. I can also confidently predict that this drive to ‘integrate’ these two opposing worlds will sooner or later be reflected in a new name for the NICM (again).

Because of the NICM’s true believe in the pseudoscientific basis of TCM or rather the prospect of tapping into the $170 billion TCM market, Western Sydney University approved a thesis in 2008 where rhino horn was being promoted as “remarkably” better for the treatment of vascular dementia as compared to the control group. The critique that I had on this thesis was that they should have given this aspect a critical scientific appraisal which they completely failed to do, and thus I labelled this thesis as nothing more than promoting Rhino horn as effective medicine and therefore they are contributing to the sharp rise in rhino poaching. The supervisors of this thesis might now claim that it was a simple oversight or that the external reviewers failed to pick up on this issue or even that they did not know about the controversy surrounding the use of Rhino horn – although I would strongly doubt the latter to be the case.

So I dug a bit deeper and I found the proceedings of a symposium held in Sydney in 1997 with the title “healthy people, healthy wildlife”. This symposium dealt exclusively with the use of endangered species, including rhino, as medicine in the TCM world. The supervisor of the above mentioned thesis was also present and gave a presentation; “responsible use of TCM”. Below is a couple of excerpts from the proceedings (you can find the full proceedings here).

“I have been using Traditional Chinese Medicine regularly for several years. There have been many times when the wisdom of Traditional Chinese medicine has helped me recover from a physical complaint and I know just how beneficial the results can be” (page 4)

RHINOCEROS HORN (XI JIAO) (page 9-10)

XI JIAO is the horn of the Rhinoceros unicornis L or R. sondicus Desmarest, or R. sumatrienses (Fischer) Cuvier (Rhinocerotidae)

TCM nature: Salty, sour and cold

Actions: Clear heat, subdue Yang and cool blood, relieves fearfulness, detoxifying.

Indication and application: High fever, sun stroke, trauma, mania, convulsion, sore throat, epilepsy, febrile disease, infectious disease, macula, bad skin conditions, subcutaneous bleeding.

Chemical composition

The rhinoceros horn contains keratin. The amino acid constituents include cysteine, and alkaline amino acids histidine, lysine and arginine. Thus it resembles wool and cattle horn in mainly composed of [eu]keratin. In addition the horn contains other protein’s, peptide’s, free amino acids, and guanidine derivatives.

Substitute

As the horns from rhinoceros, antelope and Buffalo (SHUI NIU JIAO) shared similar chemical compositions and amino acids, especially keratin, it has been proved that buffalo’s horn used as a clinical substitute for rhinoceros’ horn and antelope’s horn is therapeutically effective.

Alan Bensoussan’s presentation (page 23-29)

“At a recent conference in Hong Kong there was opportunity for practitioners and traders to express concerns related to the use of endangered species. It is worthwhile looking at these comments briefly. Some sentiments that I have heard expressed in Australia are also reflected in the comments of a TCM academic in Hong Kong: “The dilemma faced by TCM users, however, could only be better appreciated if we can step into their shoes and then make judgements if we ourselves or our beloved ones are suffering from ailments that modern medicine offers little or no help whereas products from these animals may offer relief”.

“It is important to table these views because herein lie the resistance to comply with the law, and to continue to sacrifice a constantly diminishing resource. It defies all logic. Even if we adopt the crudest perspective of some human right to continuously exploit natural resources, in this case if the medicine is valuable and in diminishing supply, the resource needs protecting. And in this sense alone the profession needs to do the utmost within its capabilities to cease all use of endangered species, and utilise alternative products, or farmed or cultivated species, at least until such time as the supply of the medicine is stable. “

Honk Kong TCM retailer

“According to CITES the trade of tigers, etc is prohibited and those TCM practitioners who use such medicines to treat and save peoples’s lives, pharmacies and traders of such medicinal resources are liable to punishment. Such international convention protects animals but harms human beings, makes animals more worthy than mankind, and degrades mankind as if they were lower than animals. It is questionable that whether such kind of rules worth existing”

“… the rights of human beings of using such resources to maintain their health, treat their diseases and sustain their survival, are ignored. The people who formulate such kind of rules are indeed ignoring human rights.”

Hong Kong TCM practitioners:

“People, however, should not work towards wildlife protection but neglect the protection of human lives.”

On rhino horn: “Reasonable application should therefore be allowed and it is inappropriate to ban the medicine entirely,” “The normal traffic of species for medical use should be set strictly aside from profit-deriving business trade.”

Singapore Chinese Doctors association

“TCM practitioners are working for the good health care for all mankind. It is not fair to treat us like profiteers or put the law on us.”

End of excerpts.

TCM nature: Salty, sour and cold. Actions: Clear heat, subdue Yang and cool blood, relieves fearfulness, detoxifying – clearly TCM is a pseudoscience!!

Although this conference discussed the use of substitutes in place of endangered animals and the use of the latter is quite clearly rejected, there seems to be strong resistance coming from the TCM practitioners and retailers. They truly believe that Rhino horn is an effective, lifesaving medicine and that it cannot really be substituted by anything else – and so does Alan Bensoussan.  Replacing rhino horn with any other horn would be equivalent to admitting that it doesn’t really work – and this is unacceptable in the TCM world. Granted, they all agree that endangered animals need to be protected but there is however one important aspect that you will not find in the symposium proceedings.

That is the extremely important question that most members of the public would ask: ‘are any of these endangered animals truly effective for the treatment of any disease?’ and as a scientist you might add ‘where is the scientific evidence that rhino horn is a lifesaving medicine for the treatment of infectious diseases etc?’ or ‘what is the mechanism of action of rhino horn and specifically keratin?’ etc. etc. Surely, these aspects should at least be discussed and TCM practitioners should be educated accordingly? In general, you first need to provide scientific evidence and then only can you go and sell your medicine!

These questions aren’t even being asked, mentioned or discussed and this again proves that in the TCM world everything is active. It is a given! The reason for this is rather simple. The person who dares question the effectiveness of a specific TCM modality, in effect questions the pseudoscientific principles of TCM. The implication of this, especially for the NICM, will be that they weaken or even lose the opportunity to tap into the $170 billion TCM market. This market only exists for the true believers and thus the NICM will not risk being exposed as a semi-or non-believer. Asking these type of questions makes you suspect! In the TCM world (and the NICMs world) rhino horn is thus seen and promoted as a lifesaving medicine for the treatment of just about anything, from sunstroke to infectious diseases! That it is a banned substance doesn’t matter because as long as the underlying believe exist that Rhino horn works, and this believe is not questioned by scientists at the NICM, then they will continue to kill the rhino for its remarkable “lifesaving medicinal properties”.

So why didn’t the NICM add one or two sentences in the thesis published in 2008 about the use of the excepted substitutes in place of rhino horn? Because it is too risky! They run the risk that TCM practitioners might see them as implying that rhino horn is ineffective and that it can or should be replaced by the horns of any animal or even your fingernails. They would put a question mark behind the very principles of TCM. The NICM is thus fully aware of the controversy surrounding the use of endangered animals but they chose to fully support the pseudoscientific world as reflected in the thesis. One can argue that the symposium was held 20 years ago and that the NICM has since changed their tune but unfortunately this doesn’t happen with pseudoscientists. One tell-tale sign of this is the inability to progress, for example: new scientific research provided conclusive evidence that homeopathy is no better than a placebo and that people put their lives at risk if they continue to use it – the well-known NHMRC report. The NICM’s response? Nope, we can’t accept this report because part of our funding comes from homeopaths. They stick to their story. You can read about it here.

At the end of the day this has nothing to do with science but, as usual, it has everything to do with money. And the NICMs perseverance is starting to pay off! In the last year or two the NICM has received in excess of $10 million dollars with the most notable single donation from the well-known Australian complementary medicine company, Blackmores (my next article will deal with this aspect in a bit more detail). Although I might be jumping the gun here, I find it strange that neither the NICM nor WSU reported this news, the biggest donation in WSU’s history, on their respective news sites! Maybe because the donation of Blackmores will be used by the NICM for ‘integrative medicine research’ or in other words how to ‘integrate’ pseudoscience with science? And because Blackmores also want to tap into the $170 billion TCM market it paid the NICM on a consultancy basis to assist in their ‘Blackmores TCM Development Program’. Problem is, the only way to tap into the TCM market is to be a true believer of the pseudoscientific principles of TCM and that includes supporting the notion that rhino horn has remarkable lifesaving medicinal properties. Wouldn’t it be nice if a large company like Blackmores make a small donation towards the rhino conservation effort? After all, it is quite dangerous and expensive, some might say futile, to keep all the poachers at bay who feeds the pseudoscientific TCM market that the NICM, WSU and Blackmores support.

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