Mayo Clinic study: Rhino-horn extract killed Michael Jackson

That headline is not true. But given that the truth seems irrelevant to the problem of saving the world’s few remaining rhinos, I think it might just be necessary.

Rhinoceros are being slaughtered by poachers who sell the horns for as much as a $1 million for use in fraudulent “medicines” claiming to treat everything from impotence to hangover to cancer. NPR’s Frank Langfitt had a disturbing and depressing report on this today on All Things Considered,Vietnam’s Appetite for Rhino Horn Drives Poaching in Africa“:

Africa is facing a growing epidemic: the slaughter of rhinos.

So far this year, South Africa has lost more than 290 rhinos — an average of at least two a day. That puts the country on track to set yet another record after poachers killed 668 rhinos in 2012.

Behind the rise in killings are international criminal syndicates and global economic change. Poachers have gone high-tech, using helicopters, silencers and night vision goggles to meet the growing demand for rhino horn in East Asia, especially Vietnam.

Some newly rich Vietnamese believe rhino horn — used in traditional Chinese medicine — can now treat all kinds of illnesses. Last year in Vietnam, rhino horn sold for up to $1,400 an ounce, which is about the price of gold.

Rhinoceros horn has no medicinal value, but the false perception that it does is propelling the extinction of the species.

We have to attack that perception. And simply repeating the truth doesn’t seem to be an effective way of doing that.

It’s really a shame how damaging taking rhinoceros horn as “medicine” turns out to be.

So perhaps the solution isn’t to keep telling the truth. The problem is a pernicious and persistent set of legends, myths, conspiracy theories (“traditional” medicine is “being suppressed,” etc.). Maybe we need to counter that with a different set of legends, myths and conspiracy theories.

Rhino-horn extract causes liver damage.

Rhino-horn extract causes impotence. And baldness. Gout, flatulence, fatigue and lower-back pain.

And cancer. All kinds of cancer. Steve Jobs didn’t have cancer until he started taking rhino horn.

The shady dealers trading in rhinoceros horns all secretly work for big multinational pharmaceutical companies. They deny this because they don’t want to be legally liable for the damage that ingesting rhino-horn is doing to the gullible rich people buying it. The bankers are all in on it. And Wall Street. And, um, the CIA.

That sort of thing.

For this to work, of course, these counter-legends and counter-rumors will need to spread in places like China and Vietnam where most of the market for the illicit trade in rhinoceros horn is based. I’m not sure how to do that, exactly, but I think invoking names like Steve Jobs and Michael Jackson — people famous all over the world who are now famously dead — might help our counter-legends gain some traction there.

That’s a bit unpleasant, since it falsely connects those folks to callous behavior they had no part in during their lives. Seems like speaking ill of the dead — and like bearing false witness against those neighbors. But if such rumors could help to eliminate the demand for rhinoceros horn and thereby help to save these wonderful creatures, then I think both Jobs and Jacko would approve.

Sun Myung Moon might not have approved, but I still heard that he died from rhino-horn-induced liver failure. You’ll never read that in the “official” news reports, of course, because of the cover-up. But it’s true.

It’s not true, but that’s how this could work. Famous person dies, we blame rhino-horn poisoning.

Or we don’t even need to wait for them to die. You know why Angelina Jolie has all those adopted children? Brad Pitt took rhino-horn extract. Just once. And now he’s impotent. He should have known better, since George Clooney warned him when the same thing happened to him. And to Leonardo DiCaprio. (Ben Affleck denies it happened to him. He swears up and down that the rumors saying otherwise are untrue.)

Would this work? I don’t know. Nothing else is working and we haven’t got all the time in the world to figure this out.

Spreading falsehoods and rumors is unsavory, but it might help to end demand for a useless “medicine” by convincing would-be customers that trade in rhinoceros horn is fraudulent, foolish and deadly.

And that part is actually true.


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  • Boidster

    Spreading falsehoods and rumors is unsavory

    Little known footnote to the Ten Commandments: “…for these are unsavory.”

    But seriously, I get the urge, but Ends something something Means. What is really needed is more of this.

  • Hexep

    Fact: Traditional Chinese Medicine, also known as TCM, is bullshit. Straight-up, no-foolin’ bullshit. It does not work. Five-elements theory doesn’t work. Acupuncture doesn’t work. Meridian therapy doesn’t work. Eating heart-shaped leaves to cure hypertension doesn’t work. Eating ground-up tiger cock to cure your ED doesn’t work. Eating ground-up chicken fetuses to cure your priapism doesn’t work. Eating donkey paste – what the ever-living fuck is donkey paste? – to regulate your menstruation doesn’t work. TCM had two and exactly two good ideas – that regular physical exercise is good for you, and that particular foods could be healthy in moderation but not in excess. That’s it. Two ideas.

    But it’s sacrosant over here, because TCM is an integral and indisputable part of Chinese Culture (TM), every tenant of which is holy beyond reproach. There are two medical systems in this country – the one that works, and the one that is bullshit. Real money that could be spent on antiseptic or on antibiotics or on real, actual, functioning scientific medicine is instead pissed away on 999 or herbal sorcery or bullshit hobbies for over-educated old people at the expense of actual human life.

    It is a real thing that is killing my country. It is a nonsense extravagance that is choking us. It’s enough to make a man wish that Chairman Mao had finished the job and beaten this garbage out of the country once and for all.

  • Magic_Cracker

    I totally knew a kid in high school who tried just a little bit of rhino horn to enhance his athletic performance. He got a boner that lasted for three days before his genitals turned gangrenous and they had to amputate.

  • It is for this same justification that you will hear fundamentalists bang on and on about how [person they do not like and is now dead] had some dramatic deathbed conversion that they only ever told those intimates who were with them near their deathbed who now keep quiet about because [unflattering reasons].

    It comes down to what is more important, what a person knows is true or what they want to think is true? This is a subject you have written on quite well, Fred. The people buying rhino horn snakeoil want to believe that it gives the benefits it does. After all, why would so many admirably wealthy people sink so much money into getting it if it did not work, right, right?

  • I would not suggest sharing that. Someone might actually try it thinking “Yeah, that happened to him, but I will be lucky enough to actually pull it off.”

  • You’re not doing it right. “Rhino-horn extract turns you GAY!” is what you should be saying.

  • Jon Maki

    Years ago I read a book – I forget the title and author – in which there was a minor plot point about how one of the main characters in it had made his fortune.
    Basically, he started cloning endangered and recently-extinct animals and rebuilding their population.
    The way he made money from this seemingly philanthropic endeavor was by selling some of the cloned animals for use in “traditional” medicine.
    More on-topic, even setting aside the unsavory aspect of spreading falsehoods, I’m not really certain it would work. There is some perverse element to human nature – in the aggregate – that allows people to be selective about the kind of bullshit they’ll swallow. Pernicious, harmful bullshit that causes harm and negatively impacts the overall quality of life on this planet? They’ll not only swallow it, they’ll ask for seconds.
    But if you offer them bullshit that has the potential to be beneficial, they’ll turn their noses up at it and order pernicious bullshit takeout instead.

  • Amusing, but lying won’t work either. In this, I think Americans just don’t have much power. That’s something Americans hate to be told.

    We can donate money if we have it, and we can populate the internet with as much truth as possible, but to a large extent, as the particular terror (fear of impotence) driving the trade is not a serious problem for our culture, I don’t know if we can even imagine a solution. We can’t grok the root of the issue, and we certainly can’t control it. I suppose we can buy up as much land with rhinos on it as possible. And breed them in our own wildlife parks or something. Or maybe encourage Viagra to market aggressively in the places where the market for the trade is.

  • Bill

    Buying Rhino horn is a status game. ‘Oh look at me, I’m so rich, I can afford Rhino horn!’ What’s needed is to make cheap knock-off imitation Rhino horn, maybe from horse hooves or bits of fingernail, and make sure all the poor people can buy as much ‘Rhino horn’ as they want. Then it won’t be so cool for rich people and they’ll find something new to buy to show how rich they are.

    or else consider donating to the WWF or a more specific Rhino conservation charity. They’re doing the best they can.

    (It’s a shame Rhinos can’t be farmed for their horns, really. Or maybe Rhino horn could be grown in labs, with tissue culture?)

  • TheBrett

    Rhinos are unfortunately going extinct far faster than they can adapt to the brutal selection pressure imposed by ivory poaching. African elephants might survive in tuskless populations if nothing can be done about ivory poaching, but rhinos have been hunted so heavily that there may not even be a breeding population of rhinos that could conceivably have mutant rhinos born without horns.

  • J_Enigma32

    Ivory is nothing but dentine and a few other chemicals, which is really nothing but calcium grown over certain tissues. Cloning it might not be as practical as just creating fake ivory using human teeth, though. There’s plenty of human teeth out there. Since we’re already talking black market trade, there’s something like 90% of the human species so far that’s dead. They aren’t using those teeth for anything.

    An alternative is using Siberian Mammoths. They’re still buried and their ivory is still good, too. But I like the idea of using dead people’s teeth and lying to stupid and arrogant rich bastards who are destroying the world in a pissing contest.

  • Jereko

    I honestly clicked on that expecting cowbell…

  • aunursa

    “In 1989, there are less than four thousand black rhinos alive in the wild. Unless something is done, the current rate of killing will make them extinct by the year 2000.”

    -Richard Dean Anderson,
    MacGyver, “Black Rhino“, original airdate Nov. 13, 1989

    According to this website, persistent conservation efforts resulted in a 6% annual increase in the black rhino population to a current level of approximately 5055. Hopefully the poaching industry can be curtailed — without resorting to mendacity which can only harm the reputation of environmentalists.

  • My understanding is that Mao Zedong had a lot to do with the promotion of TCM. There were already modern hospitals in China by the time the Communists took over, and the old superstitions were fading out. That’s when Mao decided to take those beliefs, package them up as though they were a single branch (as opposed to a collection of religious and folk practices spanning some 2000 years), and slapping that “TCM” brand on them. It wasn’t because he thought any of those folk treatments worked, it was because he was promoting a form of cultural chauvinism in which anything Chinese was held to be de facto better than anything Western.

    So in a sense, TCM is Chairman Mao continuing to kill people from beyond the grave.

  • Lorehead

    There are some studies suggesting that acupuncture might do some good, although I have no idea why that might be.

  • Launcifer

    Possible point of pedantry: I think that rhino horn is entirely composed of keratin, so you might be better off using hair or fingernails(?) instead of teeth. ‘Course, I may well be mis-remembering something I saw at half-one in the morning, once upon a time.

  • Hexep

    The fact that TCM is still going strong in both the SARs and the Tangshan suggest that it wasn’t just Mao’s doing. After all, he was Mr. ‘wash-your-hands.’

    But in my experience, the phenomenon that you’re describing has absolutely happened – just primarily over the previous 20 years rather than the previous 60. It is my consideration that this is a symptom of a larger, and sadly more complicated problem to which I have no easy answer; it is wrapped up in the essence of how the Chinese see themselves and the world around them, and how they can move onward into a worldview that will get them what they actually want.

  • Hypocee

    He could well have been wrong, but in Last Chance to See Douglas Adams said that the Asian SCAM connection for rhino horn was mostly a historical sideline and the major modern demand was Sudanese bling dagger handles.

  • SisterCoyote

    I once knew a man who wrote a song to lament the massive decline in seahorses, due to TCM. He also would go on quite vocally about how conventional medicine/big pharma was keeping the truth of homeopathy and TCM down to make money. It never made sense to me – that someone could pick and choose which parts of a doctrine they wanted to believe, when the same proof/lack of proof was evident for all.

    If we can get Natural Remedies people to come out and talk about how rhino horn is bad for the soul and aura, maybe people will start listening.

  • EK

    You mean like how lying about the medical effects of contraceptives is justified if it prevents the evil of sexually active women? I’m sometimes not sure whether you’re being sarcastic, Fred; if “lying for good” is wrong, then it doesn’t become right just because the well-intentioned aim is one that you happen to agree with.

  • > if “lying for good” is wrong, then it doesn’t become right just because
    the well-intentioned aim is one that you happen to agree with.

    I endorse lying to the canonical Nazis at the door about the Jews in my attic. Does it follow, therefore, that I must endorse lying to everyone in support of every aim I agree with?

    I don’t see how one requires the other.

  • I read this as sarcastic. Fred’s spoken out against this sort of behavior in other arenas enough that I assume this isn’t a straight article benefiting from a tremendous blind spot.

    I could be wrong, though.

  • Kirala

    I have a friend who swears it got her through severe nausea during her pregnancy. I mentally place acupuncture in the category of “probably doesn’t hurt, might help,” along with a number of more scientifically verified things which have not proven as useful as advertised. (I’m looking at you, over-the-counter allergy meds!)

    I would, however, require more verification if acupuncture deprived the world of something rare and wonderful. Like, say, a cool-looking endangered species.

  • EK

    Not the same situation. Without going into a lengthy discussion of why, I think my example was far more closely analogous to the one Fred discussed than the “Nazis at the door” scenario.

  • EK

    I hope so, but I kept looking for the obvious “tell” and didn’t see one. Maybe I’m just being sarcasm tone-deaf today.

  • SisterCoyote

    I was reading it as sarcasm about something. Maybe the lies being spread about vaccination?

  • For things like pain and nausea, yes. Those are things that are especially susceptible to the placebo effect and to someone else taking the time to show they care for you and what you’re going through. Merely being touched by someone else in a caring way can help pain in particular tremendously. And then there are the endorphins released both by someone else caring for you and by the fact that you’re having needles stuck into your body.

    Here is my experience of what Western medicine does for patients in pain, especially for women in pain: 1) Ignore completely. 2) Medicate with extremely strong prescriptions that cause as many problems as they solve. 3) Imply you’re exaggerating. 4) Wave you off, shrugging about how nothing can be done oh well. 5) Tests, tests, and more tests, many incredibly painful. 6) More medication. Never attention, never caring, and any medical professional who treats you as if what you’re saying is legitimate is like manna from heaven. And that’s not counting my emergency room experience, in which I was on a gurney sobbing, my chart reading 10/10 on the pain scale, and a male nurse told me to smile.

    So it’s no wonder so many people end up going somewhere else for help. Other people LISTEN. They act like you’re a human being and like something can be done for you! They act like something should be done for you, like it’s not just whatever to live your life in agony. And since pain is very susceptible to mood (and vice versa), a professional or pseudo-professional just acting like they care, and touching you like they’re not going to be burned with your icky disabled germs, is likely a pretty phenomenal experience.

  • badJim

    The Guardian has an article about how South African game managers are treating rhinoceroses so that consumers will indeed have negative reactions:

    South African game reserve poisons rhino's horns to prevent poaching
    Radical scheme will inject horns with parasiticides and pink dye in bid to safeguard rhino numbers.

    (Rhino horns are made of hair, not bone or ivory, so this is easier than it sounds.)

  • DMG

    The question isn’t “does someone experience benefit after acupuncture?” but “does someone experience benefit *because* of acupuncture?”

    You can test this by giving real acupuncture to a group of people, and sham acupuncture (basically stick needles in randomly) to another group, measuring the results of each.

    Whenever this has been tried, the two groups end up statistically indistinguishable. Acupuncture itself confers no benefit beyond the nice feeling that someone is doing something ostensibly for your health.

  • Agreed that it’s not the same situation.

    Agreed that lying about the medical effects of contraceptives is more closely analogous to lying about the medical effects of rhino horn than it is to lying about the presence of Jews in my attic.

  • Lorehead

    But that’s the thing: in some studies, for example, real acupuncture relieves symptoms better than sham acupuncture. One limitation of those studies is that it’s possible to fool patients and the evaluating physicians, but not the acupuncturists themselves always know whether they’re giving real acupuncture or sham acupuncture. So, the placebo effect might sneak in that way.

  • Fred isn’t lying with a straight face, though. Fred only lies because rhino horn has infected his brain with nanomolecular liarbots.

  • CharityB

    To be fair, none of us really know that rhino horn isn’t dangerous. There’s no conclusive evidence that it is dangerous, but there’s also no conclusive evidence that it’s not dangerous.

    Some scientists believe that rhino horn and extracts derived from it pose no risk to humans. Others believe that it can lead to impotence/erectile dysfunction, cancer, gout, excessive flatulence, hair loss, and heart problems. Reasonable people can disagree.

    Because the jury is still out on the issue, we should teach the controversy.

  • Why isn’t anyone doing RESEARCH to FIND THE LINK between Rhino horn and cancer? All you pro-rhinos are just using profanity and ad hominem attacks because you can’t PROVE that Rhino Horn DOESN’T cause cancer! Like, did the media report that the Tsarnaev brothers were using Rhino horn? Of course they didn’t, because NOBODY IS INVESTIGATING THIS LINK!

  • Jared Bascomb

    Yeah, well, after it becomes gangrenous, he might just be able to do that himself.

  • If by “closely analogous” you mean “the complete opposite in effect and intention” then sure.

  • Lorehead

    I believe you and I’m really sorry to hear about that. Hope a hug over the Internet helps.

  • smrnda

    Thanks for a great observation. I’m definitely not a believer in ‘alt med’ but I realize that bad experiences with commercial medicine (I prefer that label for what we have Stateside) makes people want any alternative that doesn’t treat you with total callousness and indifference.

  • Besides, everybody knows that the rhino horn is nowhere near as potent as human horn.

  • To give another Altemeyer quote, “Authoritarian followers are highly suspicious of their many out-groups; but they are credulous to the point of self delusion when it comes to their in-groups.”

  • Oh my god, did that actually happen? D: SO MUCH DO NOT WANT.

  • I kind of read it as Fred being in a rather fed up mood. I am amazed he is as fair handed as he is, honestly. Most of us would probably have gone completely bitter by this point, but he has strong self respect, a faith in human decency, and people who love and support him.

  • I’m a long time campaigner on environmental and animal issues and I am very concerned about the mass extinction that is happening. But countering lies with lies is definitely not the way to go and will backfire in the end. And as a fan please don’t use Michael Jackson’s name in this, too many lies have and are being told about him and please don’t call him Jacko, he hated it. Thank you.

  • arcseconds

    Bizarrely enough, and quite unfortunately it’s also meant that unknowable quantities of China’s earliest records have been ingested in the mistaken belief that they were dragon bones.

  • arcseconds

    Unfortunately that sounds not unlike the two acquaintances of mine with chronic pain, and I live somewhere with a semi-sane health system.

    You forgot the “make you explain it all over again and justify every step all over again (including why you’re not going to try remedy 1 yet again) because who needs to read and understand case histories”.

  • PorlockJunior

    “lying to the canonical Nazis at the door”

    The canonical Nazis: very good. I shall remember to steal it.

  • PorlockJunior

    It would be irresponsible not to speculate.

  • And that’s not counting my emergency room experience, in which I was on a gurney sobbing, my chart reading 10/10 on the pain scale, and a male nurse told me to smile.

    And you would also have been in too much pain to lunge from your gurney and strangle the life out of him as he deserved.

  • Lectorel

    You have a sick mind, my good sir, and I salute you for it.

  • I’m pretty certain that 1. Fred’s not actually advocating this approach and 2. The use of “Jacko” was to imitate the style of a tabloid article.