The Rhinoceros—Victim of Man’s Superstition
By “Awake!” correspondent in South Africa
THE massive horn on the nose of the rhino looks dangerous. Oddly enough that very horn has brought danger to the rhino. He has been hunted ruthlessly for this horn to gratify a superstition found in many Eastern lands. Yes, magical properties are attributed to the rhino horn, and a small piece of the horn can command a high price.
The Magical Horn
When licensed hunters shoot rhino, the horns generally become government property and are sold at auction. In East Africa the Kenya government holds a yearly auction of rhino horn, and traders from Eastern countries buy up the horn for export. In 1964 the price paid at that auction was $7 (USA) per pound, but in 1970 the price rose to $20 per pound; on that occasion some 1,100 pounds were purchased.
These prices are small, however, compared with those paid on the black market. Poachers are encouraged by the high returns to slaughter far more rhino than are killed by any other means. In India even higher prices are paid, $150 per pound in 1961 and $240 in 1969!
What are the qualities attributed to rhino horn that prompt men to pay such high prices for it? Some consider it to have medicinal properties, relieving rheumatic and other pains. Some believe that a horn placed beneath the bed of a pregnant woman will relieve labor. And an owner of a horn may rent it out for this purpose on many occasions at about $50 each time.
Also drinking cups are made out of rhino horns and these are reputed to be able to neutralize or reveal the existence of poison. Some think that poison in the drink will cause the cup to crack or the potion to froth.
It seems that the practice of making “poison-proof” drinking cups from rhino horns began about the late fourth century C.E. At that time it was believed that the mythical unicorn could detect poison with its horn. Naturally, people were anxious to obtain such horns, and the demand was satisfied by selling rhino horns as genuine unicorn horns.
The particular demand, however, for rhino horn arises because of its reputed quality as an aphrodisiac, something to restore the waning sexual power in man. The rhino may copulate over a period of several hours, and so it has been suggested that this has inspired men to try to gain some of this power by eating the horn. Is the horn of the rhinoceros able to produce sexual virility, or is it merely superstition, without any basis in fact?
Fact or Fiction?
The search for an aphrodisiac has continued over many centuries, and all sorts of animal parts have been used by various peoples, including a variety of horns. Today men are in a position to make a scientific analysis of rhino horn and thus determine whether there is any basis in fact for the claims.
Horns similar to rhino horns do grow on other animals, even sometimes on man, but in such cases they are pathological growths and often harmful. We can hardly imagine that benefits can accrue from eating a tumor or growth found on the body of another person or animal. However, Jeremiah Diale, a Basuto from South Africa, accumulated some wealth by selling chips from such a horn that grew from his forehead. He traveled through India in 1923 and pieces of his “horn” were eagerly sought after. Sometime later, however, he died of cancer.
The claim has been made that the rhino horn is able to stimulate sexual powers because it acts as an irritant when eaten. The horn is said to be composed of agglutinated hair and, when powdered, it contains minute particles that are said to be sharp-edged. It is suggested that these particles, when swallowed, pass through the digestive tract into the bladder and, on discharge, set up an irritation in the urethra. In actual fact, however, this cannot be so. For no solid particles are able to pass through the digestive tract into the bladder. Only dissolved substances can do this, and so it is not possible for an irritation to be set up in this way. In addition the horn is really composed of skin cells, and these do not break down into sharp-edged pieces.
Another suggestion is that the horn contains some chemical constituent that reacts upon the body in some way. Is it possible, for example, that sex hormones such as testosterone are contained in the horn substance and that these are released into the system of the person taking it?
To settle this question, Dr. Werner T. Schaurte of the Rhino Research Foundation in Germany had exhaustive tests made. The Institute for Animal Physiology of the University of Munich carried out a steroid hormone analysis of the horn. No traces of hormones were found. The results of the tests were conclusive in establishing that there is no scientific evidence for accepting the story that rhino horn is an aphrodisiac.
Man’s preoccupation with matters of sex has led him into many foolish and degrading practices. Reflection on the subject, however, should serve to show the fallacy of trying to transfer a quality of an animal to a human by eating or wearing a certain part of the animal. Man cannot fly by eating bird feathers or remain indefinitely underwater by rubbing fish scales upon his nose, and neither can he restore waning sexual vigor by swallowing the powdered horn of a rhino.
On the other hand, getting to know the rhino in his own home and appreciating the part that is played by such creatures in the balance of life has real therapeutic value in stripping off the cares and frustrations of modern living.
Meet the Rhino at Home
The hook-lipped or long-lipped rhino lives on leaves and young shoots of bush-like trees. To get its dinner it often uses its front horn (sometimes as long as three and a half feet) to uproot and overturn bushes and small trees. Let us observe a rhino feeding from the acacia thorn tree. Notice the way his hooked lip reachesaround the twigs to strip them of leaves. It acts almost like a finger. Certainly his mouth was made ideally for feeding in that manner.
That bird sitting on the rhino’s back is an oxpecker, and it feeds upon the parasites found on the skin and in the ears of its host. These alert birds fly off making a loud noise at the appearance of danger, so sounding a warning to the rhino.
While the rhino’s sense of smell is acute and his hearing is good, he has difficulty in distinguishing a man beyond about twenty-five yards. And if he catches sight of movement at that range, he will feel too close to danger for comfort and he may charge. Rather than this rhino being a bad-tempered animal, some naturalists say that it is more likely fear that motivates the attack and that the charge is actually defensive rather than aggressive.
Nevertheless, three thousand pounds of rhino, galvanized into action, charging at twenty-five to thirty-five miles per hour makes a formidable foe. A locomotive was once derailed by one of these huge rhino. But notice how content he is to browse. He is happy to be left alone. Well, let us do just that and see if we can find his cousin, the square-lipped rhino.
This rhino, the largest of all rhinoceroses, can weigh up to four tons. He is a grazer, feeding upon grass. But look there. Now you can see why he is called “square-lipped.” His mouth is flat and about ten inches wide so he finds it easy to feed on grass. A record horn for this rhino measured sixty-two inches. Fortunately he is quite docile and will usually run off if he finds we are near. His reaction to danger, then, is generally different from that shown by the hook-lipped rhino.
But now he is heading for a wallow. Apart from giving relief from heat, the mud serves another purpose. A coating of mud will cause the ticks, small blood-eating parasites, to loosen their hold on the rhino’s skin. The rhino then rubs them off along with the mud, against a stone or tree stump. The wallow, in turn, becomes deeper and deeper as the rhino uses it, and it eventually becomes a semi-permanent waterhole, providing water in the dry season for many other animals.
The bull rhino seeks to establish a territory of his own, an area of perhaps 500 acres. He has various ways of marking this territory as his, and he will defend it against challengers. One way he marks his territory is by finding a small bush; then, holding each back leg stiff in turn, he will drag them over the bush, breaking it down. After this he urinates in a fine spray so that the whole bush is scented. Now any visiting rhino that comes upon such a bush will know immediately that he is in someone’s territory. But how will the bull know who has visited his territory?
It is the practice of the bull to establish middens or heaps of dung. Any visiting rhino will use the middens and so leave evidence of his presence. The territorial bull makes his round of the middens, from the scent gaining knowledge as to who has visited his territory; whether they were cows or bulls, neighbors or strangers. The dung in the midden is scattered by a kicking action of the back legs on the part of the territory owner so that the visitor’s slate is wiped clean before the next round of inspection.
Many, indeed, are the interesting features of these huge horned animals, now declining in numbers. Surely their lives should mean more than the inflated value of their horns. What a pity that man, activated by superstition, fails to see the true value of this earth and the wonderful creatures upon it.