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Tao of Saigon Horn wins commendation in environmental journalism contest

November 27, 2013


This award winning article looks for solutions to the illegal trade in rhino horn by delving into the Chinese and Vietnamese theory and tradition behind it’s medicinal use. It’s a short version of the original published by Ground Report on New Years Day last year. It was commended by the “No illegal trade and consumption in endangered wildlife, their parts and derivatives, contributing to the protection of biodiversity in Viet Nam” writing competition run by the anti wild trade arm of WWF in Vietnam, TRAFFIC. It has appeared on the Communist Party of Vietnam website.

by Michael Smith

‘The medicinal benefit of chewing your fingernails’.
The phrase is meant to be off-putting, a layman’s interpretation of the results of scientific tests.
It is a key statement being echoed in the West to discredit the medicinal use of rhino horn in Vietnam, but it doesn’t work. Instead demand for rhino horn continued to rise.
One of the reasons the statement doesn’t have impact in Vietnam as in the West, it is based on science not supported by Vietnamese world views.
Try and squelch a people’s belief in the efficacy of a centuries old miracle cure with science?
A large part of Vietnamese traditional medicine stems from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) which relies on thousands of years of tradition. In early civilizations medical theory had a strong philosophical character and TCM has maintained that philosophic character based in Yin and Yang, while the West shifted to a more scientific approach after Hippocrates.
From the metropolises of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi to the farming households of the Mekong Delta to the hill tribes of the Vietnam Central Highlands, the overwhelming majority of people are still served by indigenous practitioners who feel the pulse, examine the patient, reason about the symptoms and treat him/her exactly as their ancestors did centuries ago.
This is true, but what it is also true is that much of rhino horn or sung te giac’s use bears little connection to traditional medicine. Sung te giac has instead turned into a metropolitan people’s medicine, self-prescribed and indulged in.
The former Director of the John Hopkins Institute of the History of Medicine, Henry E. Sigerist said in the 1949 translation of TCM’s most important book, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, that TCM must be understood to “overcome obsolete theories and practices” before what is useless can be discarded and what is useful can be kept.
Sigerist said we cannot expect acceptance of modern science, “without far-reaching social and economic changes and without economic preparation”.
Rhino horn demand is growing with prices skyrocketing in countries with a burgeoning middle class like Vietnam and China.
It is one of the most expensive substances on earth and African nations like South Africa are paying the price.

South Africa’s savannahs see dead and dying rhinos with horns chain-sawed off everyday.
According to a 2012 TRAFFIC report: South Africa has witnessed a rapid escalation in poaching of live animals, rising from 13 in 2007 to a record 448 rhinos in 2011. In early 2012, almost two rhinos were being poached every day.
“Of 43 documented arrests of Asian nationals for rhino crimes in South Africa, 24 have been Vietnamese (56%) and 13 Chinese (28%),” the report says.
A former South African conservation worker says in an email, “It is however very clear from media reports that we are actually being ridiculed in our efforts to curb the poaching.
“We have lost more than 650 rhino during 2012 alone which is about 150 more than the previous year.
“Most of those were lost from the Kruger Park although private properties were not spared.
“Our government does not have the answers!”
There must be an answer to save the rhino from extinction and prevent ruthless killing.

Closer look at TCM
Much like the claims echoing across Vietnam of a ‘miracle medicine’ that have been feeding the spiralling illegal Vietnamese trade in rhino horn, the medicinal-benefit-of-chewing-your-fingernails-metaphor has been reposted many times on the internet in the West, via blogs, conservation websites and mainstream media.
It’s hard to know where the opposing slogans originated from or if there is any truth to either of them. They both need to be assessed critically.
To look at the “fingernail” claim requires a deeper look at TCM.
In his book Tiger Bone and Rhino Horn Richard Ellis wrote: “That the medicines may not cure or ameliorate the conditions for which they are prescribed in TCM cannot be accurately assessed by a Western-only perspective, say many TCM adherents, so an argument on the grounds of efficacy will likely fall on deaf ears.”
He basically says that scientifically proving the efficacy of Eastern medicine is an oxymoron.
In 1949 the medical history expert Henry Sigerist in the forward to “Hung-ti Nei Ching Su Wen” (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine) described what is needed to change attitudes about traditional medicine, “It must be done tactfully with a terminology and concepts familiar to the people. Knowledge of the medical history would be very helpful.”
Thus it’s vital to develop arguments against the medical use of the horn from the Asian perspective.
In 2010 Vietnam’s last rhino was killed for its horn while a growing demand in the country was supplied from South Africa.
In 2010 in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam’s south, it was simple enough to go out on the streets to find out that rhino horn was being ground into powder to allegedly cure poisoning, fever, diabetes and cancer, used as a general tonic and hangover cure.
In one alleged case a car salesman at a party broke out a 5000 USD block of the horn that he had acquired as part of payment for a car. He then allegedly ground it into a powder, mixed it into a milky drink and shared it with a select group of family and friends in a private room, in a what seemed to be a display of conspicuous consumption akin to getting around in flashy cars, dripping with gold jewellery.
It is too easy, however, to be cynical in the West about something we don’t understand, something not in line with western cultural values and social mores. It is also counter-productive to useful dialogue and culturally disrespectful.
Ellis’s book looks at the history of the use of rhino, tiger and bears in both Eastern and Western medicine. He looks at the important literature and schools over the centuries.
The Chinese and indeed European use of rhino horn, he says, goes back to when the rhino was believed to be the mythical unicorn.
The myth goes back at least to the Bronze Age about 3000 BC in China, about the time The Yellow Emperors Classic was written, back in the “legendary ages”, when history and legend blurred. The shape of the horn lent itself for use as a drinking cup and medicinal powers were given to the cup.
“In the fourth century Li Chih-chen stated the main ailments that could be treated with unicorn horn were snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid fever, headaches, boils, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning and devil possession.”
Ellis describes rhino horn as a “cold drug” to treat hot diseases. This alleged medical property of rhino horn is known by TCM practitioner not only in Asia but around the world thanks to university text books and translations.
For example Bensky and Gamble’s 1993 Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica, which is required reading in most Australian TCM schools, notes rhino horn’s use as a fever remedy.
The book lists buffalo horn as a substitute, but points out that as a refrigerant buffalo horn is only a fifth as potent as rhino horn.

Foundations of traditional Chinese medicine
It is interesting to note, the original Huang-ti Nei Ching Su Wen (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine), which is generally considered the first discussion of Chinese Medicine, doesn’t mention rhino horn.
The Nei Ching which dates back as far as 2600BC has remained for millennia the most important book on TCM in existence.
It emphasizes treatments like acupuncture, moxa or moxibustion and massage instead of surgery and barely touches on medicines.
No passage in the original Nei Ching discusses the use of wild animal parts as medicine, except for four poisonous animals including the snake, centipede and scorpion. Instead it focuses on a philosophical system that includes man, heaven and earth, the Tao and its two constituents Yin and Yang, the flow of energy called Chi and the theory of the five elements.
In a commentary added by Wang Ping to the Nei Ching, in 762AD over 3000 years after the original was written, medicines made with wild animal parts were said to “attack evil influences”.
One of the earliest Chinese texts that deals with medicine made from wild animal parts was written during the Han Dynasty (206 BC to AD 220). The Divine Husbandsman’s Classic of the Materia Medica (Shen nong ben cao jing) contained 67 zoological entries.

Ellis cites the panacea-like claims of rhino horn in Bernard Reid’s 1931 translation of Li Shih-chen’s 1597 Pen Ts’ ao Kang Mu. The claims are so specific they would be easy to test.
“It should not be taken by pregnant women; it will kill the foetus. As an antidote to poisons. To cure devil possession and keep away evil spirits and miasmas. For gelsemium [jasmine] and snake poisoning. To remove hallucinations and bewitching nightmares. Continuous administration lightens the body and makes one very robust. For typhoid, headache and feverish colds. To expel fear and anxiety to calm the liver and clear the vision… It dissolves phlegm…”
The Nei Ching states health and longevity is the result of living according to “The Way” or “The Tao” – which derives from a complex balance of Yin and Yang.
By balancing Yin and Yang, the basis of TCM is preventative rather than curative similar to the growing trend of lifestyle medicine and complimentary medicine in Australia now.
“The ancient sages did not treat those who were already ill, they instructed those who were not ill,” the Nei Ching says.
“Those who follow the Tao achieve the formula of perpetual youth and maintain a youthful body. Although they are old in years they are still able to produce offspring.”
The reasons for the many people’s preference for TCM in Vietnam and China include:
•Its proven efficacy in many areas (Ellis presents an excellent case study for the effectiveness of the TCM herb, qinghao, for malaria and points out that a third of US citizens prefer alternative medicine such as TCM)
•Confucius the founder of one of the major religions in China and Vietnam, Confucianism, forbade any violation of the human body, leaving surgery only as a last resort in TCM.
•In most Asiatic countries modern scientific medicine has not penetrated very deeply because of a lack of facilities and the foreignness of scientific medicine to the majority of the people. Universal access to good services does not exist, whereas access to traditional medicine is much more available.
•Asian values are greatly determined by age and priorism in which Chinese and Vietnamese generally have an inherent belief in the sacredness of their past and have values greatly determined by age such as priorism, which is linked to ancestor worship. Ancestor worship is one of the major religions in Vietnam. Traditionally Chinese and Vietnamese have greater confidence in those physicians who have received their training according to ancient patterns.
•The philosophical and religious features on which the theories of the Nei Ching are based are frequently mentioned in the five Canons – the I Ching (Book of Changes) the Shu Cheng (Book of Government) and Shih Ching (Book of Songs).
•Chinese and Western medicine developed in parallel since the time of Hippocrates in Greece but in the early 15th Century, at the time that Western medicine began to break away from philosophy to embrace science, China went into a period self imposed isolation.

TCM parallels ancient Western medicine
The Chinese traditionally believe that everything on Earth (and Heaven) is made of Yin and Yang which means everything has different yin (cold) and yang (hot) properties.
Over the centuries practitioners sought out animal parts for their Yin and Yang properties to use as medicine. The ancient texts, however, provide little justification or proof for why they are Yin or Yang.
Talk with many Vietnamese today about any ailment and you will be warned to take special care to avoid certain winds and the imbalances and illnesses caused by seasons and rains.
While many Vietnamese are quite fey in their beliefs still, this quite common claim about winds relates to the Nei Ching: “Among the major causes of disease were thought to be the winds which were held to disturb the harmony of Yin and Yang in the body. The four winds created different diseases.”
This is also similar to past European beliefs. During the bubonic plague which ravaged Europe from 1347-1350 and arose sporadically until 1670 many believed it was caused by bad air or miasmas.
While ancient medicine texts in Europe did not cite Yin and Yang, they did prescribe medicines to correct imbalances. It was not just the Chinese pharmacies that stocked animal parts. In his chapter called Chinese Medicine, Western Medicine, Ellis quotes Culpepper’s catalogue titled “Parts of Living Creatures and Excrements”. Here is an excerpt of ingredients for potions from the 1653 book:
“The fat, grease, or suet of a Duck, Goose, Eel, Boar, Herron, Dog, Capon, Beaver, Wild Cat, Stork, Coney, Horse, Hedgehog, Hen, Max, Lion, Hare, Pike… Wolf… Vulture… Rhinocerous, Unicorn, the skull of a man killed by a violent death…”
It is a curious fact that good old Britain once had pharmacy shelves lined with the similar animal parts as Asian pharmacies.
“Arguments about risk and cause aside, the application of the right animal vegetable or mineral pharmaceuticals could probably cure a number of diseases or ameliorate the symptoms…” Ellis says.
Thus Ellis is respectful of TCM and leaves the reader with an open mind about whether rhino horn has some medicinal benefit rooted in Taoist philosophy that can’t be replicated or proven by science.
He implores everyone to consider, however, that whether it be scientifically or philosophically the case, it is very possible that maybe rhino horn may have little or no medical value, and that a critically endangered species could be wiped out for very little or no benefit to anyone.
No benefit except for those who stand to profit, but not anyone who is sick or hungover or anyone who wants to detoxify their body.
Just consider maybe these rhinos are dying for nothing.
It is “not the use of animal parts per se that is the problem – it is the slaughter of animals for what might be specious applications, or worse, the slaughter of critically endangered species”.
Yet the fact remains that as of June 28, 446 rhinos have been poached for their horns in 2013.

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