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The Tao of Saigon Horn

March 2, 2015

‘Rhino horn has 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 continues 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 or as the Vietnamese say am duong, 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.

Even worse I have heard it being used as a type of currency, a culture of conspicuous consumption is developing around it.

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, (Noi Kinh in Vietnamese) 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.

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 spiraling 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.

My 2010 Groundreport article The Saigon Horn has a critical look at the impact the “miracle medicine” statement is having in Vietnam. To look at the “fingernail” claim we have to look deeper 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.”

The Western scientific proof of the efficacy of eastern medicine is an oxymoron.

In 1949 the medical history expert Henry Sigerist said, “It [to change attitudes] must be done tactfully with a terminology and concepts familiar to the people. Knowledge of the medical history would be very helpful.”

It’s vital to look at the medical use of the horn from the Asian perspective rather than through a scientific lens.

In 2010 in Vietnam, the country’s last rhino was killed for its horn, while a growing demand was supplied from South Africa.

In Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam’s south, I just had to ask around on the streets to find out the horn is ground into powder to allegedly cure poisoning, fever, diabetes and cancer, used as a general tonic and hangover cure, and people were even breaking out 5000 USD blocks of the horn to grind down and share as a milky drink at parties for the growing middle class.

Conspicuous consumption of a very cruel kind.

Consumers included car salesmen, business owners, hairdressers, drivers, entertainers and the idle rich right down to the desperately poor dying of cancer.

But it’s too easy to be cynical of beliefs that are foreign.

Cynical when a traditional doctor suggests that pangolin scales are a substitute for rhino horn to cure cancer?

Cynical about a motorbike taxi driver in the central coastal town of Hue drinking a glass of wine everyday made from a black cat he had boiled down to relieve lower back pain?

Cynical when a scientist in Australia makes a drug with a jellyfish from the Barrier Reef.

Ellis’s book looks at the history of the use of rhino, tiger and bear parts in both Eastern and Western medicine. He looks at the literature and schools over the centuries till now.


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 TheYellow Emperors Classic was written, back in the legendary ages, when history and legend blur. 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 China, 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. Strangely enough a TCM practitioner in Melbourne I questioned last month said the same thing – it is a “refrigerant”.

It was interesting that he had learned that in a Melbourne TCM school by reading the required text, Bensky and Gamble’s 1993 Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica.

He said that book was the required Materia Medica reading in most Australian TCM schools.

He added that Bensky and Gamble also stated that buffalo horn could be substituted as a refrigerant but was only a fifth as potent as rhino horn.

What is written in the West does not go unnoticed in the East. So it must be acknoledged that Bensky and Gamble’s translation has an impact in the East.

Foundations of traditional Chinese medicine

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 medicine.

The original Nei Ching discusses the medicinal use of four poisonous animals including the snake, centipede and scorpion and the use of domestic animals in the diet, but it does not mention any wild animal parts . Instead it innitiatesthe longstanding philosophical system that includes man, heaven and earth, the Tao and its two constituents Yin and Yang (am duong), the flow of energy called Chi through the subtle energy channels and the theory of the five elements and five systems.

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.

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 part were said to “attack evil influences”.

Ellis cites the panacea-like effects 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 “The Way” or “The Tao” (or in Vietnamese dao giao) – which derives from a complex balance of 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.

As the Nei Ching says:

“The ancient sages did not treat those who were already ill, they instructed those who were not ill.

“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 preference for TCM in Vietnam and China can be attributed to several reasons:

  • 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 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.
  • Asian values are greatly determined by age and priorism. 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 had 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 for why they are Yin or Yang.

Talk with many Vietnamese today and you will be warned to take special care to avoid certain winds and the imbalances and illnesses caused by seasons and rains.

This quite common belief 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 in Europe did not cite yin and yang, it did prescribe medicines to correct imbalances of hot and cold in the body. It was not just the Chinese pharmacies that stocked animal parts. Culpepper’s 1653 AD catalogue titled “Parts of Living Creatures and Excrements” contains almost every animal part conceivable.

“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…”

Good old Western science…

Arguments against rhino horn use

Ellis says, “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…”

But there is as much snake oil under the banner of TCM as there was with medieval doctor’s sign of the Cross as an antiseptic in England in 1000AD, Culpepper’s blood of a badger in 1567 and Hippocrates’ four humors of blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm in 460BC Greece.

But Ellis says 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”.

But Ellis says 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”.

The solution he offers is: “Even those who have used animal parts for thousands of years – should recognize that the animals that provide these pharmaceuticals, whether useful or not, are becoming extinct.”

So to protect white rhinos, black rhinos, Javan rhinos and Indian rhinos the ‘fingernail campaign’ becomes irrelevant.

He also says, “It is critically important to develop substitutes for animal substances.” And he gives several examples of where this is happening already.

What might also be useful to slow demand is to question the Chinese belief in priorism and look at Sigerist’s suggestion back in 1949 of making other medicines such as science offers more universally accessible.

A 19th Century expert on China , Franke said on priorism: “It is dangerous to move the ideals of a people into a great past for it interferes with man’s normal urge to expect and to work for improvement in the future.”

As TCM is based on philosophy then the promise of longevity attained by living according to the Tao could also have a positive impact.

Considering rhino horn is toted as a hangover cure and a status symbol, the Nei Chingdescribes the Tao:

“In ancient times those people who understood the Tao [The way of self cultivation] patterned themselves on the Yin and Yang [the two principles in nature] and they lived in harmony with the arts of divination…

“There was temperance in eating and drinking. Their hours of rising and retiring were regular and not disorderly and wild, by these means the ancients kept their bodies united with their souls…

“They felt happy under any condition. To them it did not matter whether a man held a high or low position in life…”


Conservation groups have switched away from the “fingernail campaign” and aim to reduce demand with a three pronged campaign to raise awareness of the inhumanity of the trade and the fragility of the species, the need for coordinated international law making and enforcement and the meaninglessness and indulgent nature of rhino horn use.

The UNTV and CITES premier of their film “Rhinos under Threat” in June 2012, graphically covers the inhumanity and fragile beauty of the South African rhinos that are the victims.

TRAFFIC put out the The South Africa—Viet Nam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus: A deadly combination of institutional lapses, corrupt wildlife industry professionals and Asian crime syndicatesIt identifies Vietnam as the main market.

The year just gone has been big on making pledges against wildtrade.

TRAFFIC also wants environmental courts to be established by ASEAN nations including to bolster environmental jurisprudence.

The WWF anti-wildlife trafficking arm pushed for the new courts at a ASEAN 2nd Roundtable on Environmental Law and Enforcement in Malaysia in early December.

Tougher customs measures which are described here and new Memorandums of Understanding between South Africa and Vietnam which are described in this TRAFFIC article will add give a sharper edge to policing measures acting as a deterrent and reducing demand.

Statements by APEC, the US Secretary of state, Hillary Clinton and discussions at the level of the UN have put wildtrade and rhino horn in the global spotlight.

Conservation groups have steered away from naming authentic TCM practice as the main source of demand for the horn.

TRAFFIC instead says that the exotic animal part is being mainly used as an expensive middle class indulgence.

“The surge in rhino horn demand from Viet Nam has nothing to do with meeting traditionalmedicine needs, it’s to supply a recreational drug to party goers or to con dying cancerpatients out of their cash for a miracle rhino horn cure that will never happen,” said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC rhino expert, and a co-author of the new report.

The report says: “Ultimately the only long-term solution to stamping out rhino poaching in Africa and Asia lies in curbing demand for horn.

“Four main user groups have been identified in Viet Nam: the principal one being those who believe in rhino horn’s detoxification properties, especially following excessive intake of alcohol, rich food and “the good life”. Affluent users routinely grind up rhino horn and mix the powder with water or alcohol as a hangover-cure and general health tonic.

“Horn is also used as a supposed cancer cure by terminally ill patients, who are sometimes deliberately targeted by rhino horn “touts” as part of a cynical marketing ploy to increase the profitability of the illicit trade.

While Milliken is right that party goers on rhino horn are not living according to the precepts of TCM and the Tao, there is still some tenuous connection to TCM as the party goers are surely acting according to some twisted version of the Tao to prevent illness.

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