Alternatives to rhino horn

Rhinoceros horns, unlike those of other horned mammals, consist principally of keratin, the same type of protein that makes up hair and fingernails, with dense mineral deposits at the centre [1].  Pharmacological testing at Hoffmann La Roche for IUCN and WWF in1983 published in The Environmentalist concluded that “rhino horn, like fingernails, is made of agglutinated hair and has no analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmolytic nor diuretic properties. No bactericidal effect could be found against suppuration and intestinal bacteria. Essentially, ingesting rhino horn is the same as chewing your own fingernails.” [2]

More recently, in 2008 Dr. Raj Amin at the Zoological Society of London also put rhino horn through rigorous scientific testing, confirming the conclusions drawn by earlier research, namely that rhino horn contains no medicinal properties. [3]

According to researchers at the Department of Biology and Chinese Medicinal Material Research Centre of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the mechanism of action of rhinoceros horn, however, is considered to be complicated. “Apparently, based on the results of this study, rhinoceros horn can reduce fever (on rats), but only at rather high dosage levels when prescribed as a single drug.” [4]  In this study, rats induced with fever showed temporary lowering of temperature after being injected with an exceptionally high concentration of rhino horn extract. However, there was no antipyretic effect at the dosage levels comparable to what would actually be prescribed to a human patient, confirming that rhino horn would essentially be ineffective in reducing fever.

During the 1990s, Paul But, PhD, then at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, performed experiments to test the effectiveness of rhino horn and its alternatives. His study found that rhino horn and high doses of water buffalo horn could reduce fever and counter toxins - as, however, could a combination of herbs without any type of horn. In a 1993 paper, the Chinese Association of Medicine and Philosophy recommended Sheng Di Huang (Rehmanniae Radix) and Huang Lian (Coptidis Rhizoma) as acceptable botanical substitutes for rhino horn, based on Dr. But’s study. [5]

A 2002 survey of herbal practitioners featured in the book Mending the Web of Life noted potential botanical replacements for rhino horn, including Sheng Di Huang (Rehmanniae Radix) and Gou Teng (Uncariae Ramulus cum Uncis) as a potential alternative for “clearing heat and arresting tremors” (actions assigned to rhino horn). [6]

In a 2006 report commissioned by DEFRA (UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural affairs) and IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare), both rhino horn and substitute plants were investigated. Rhino horn did not demonstrate anti-bacterial or anti-inflammatory properties, whereas most of the herbs selected demonstrated some anti-bacterial activity and/or potential anti-inflammatory properties. [7] The report identified nine potential botanical alternatives to rhino horn, based on tests conducted and evidence from published TCM and other scientific literature: Ban Lan Gen (Radix Isatidis), Chi Shao (Paeoniae Radix rubra), Mu Dan Pi (Cortex Moutan), Dan Shen (Radix Salvia Miltiorrhozae), Jin Yin Hua (Flos Lonicerae), Lian Qiao (Fructus Forsythia), Sheng Di Huang (Rehmanniae Radix), Xuan Shen (Scrophulariae Radix) and Zi Cao (Radix Arnebiae).

Due to concerns about the decimation of rhino populations throughout the 1980s and 1990s, TCM practitioners have been encouraged to substitute other ingredients in place of rhino horn, and in the 1990s, conservation groups encouraged the use of saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica, Bovidae). While this plan was well-intentioned, it had disastrous results, as by 2003 fewer than 30,000 individuals remained in Russia and Kazakhstan, which had previously had a population of over 1 million, largely due to rampant poaching for use in TCM. After this dramatic population crash, in 2002 saiga antelope was added to the IUCN Red List of critically endangered species, and TCM practitioners are now actively discouraged from using its horn  (see Saiga Antelope, JCM Page link). Instead, the horns of water buffalo and cows are now commonly promoted as alternatives to rhino horn.

In addition to herbal alternatives, according to Dr Ho Ka Cheong, President of the Herbalist Association in Hong Kong, rhino horn can be simply, cheaply and effectively replaced by Aspirin.  [8]




4. (Ethnopharmacology of Rhinoceros Horn. I: Antipyretic Effects of Rhinoceros Horn and Other Animal Horns, 1990:

5.  Robinson J. Healing without Harm: Working to Replace the Use of Animals in Traditional Chinese Medicines [report]. Animals Asia Foundation. March 2009.

6. Mending the Web of Life: Chinese Medicine and Species Conservation, by Elizabeth Call

 7. Bell C, Simmonds M. Plant Substances as Alternatives for Animal Products in Traditional Medicines. Report submitted to the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs. 2006.

8.  Robinson J. Healing without Harm: Working to Replace the Use of Animals in Traditional Chinese Medicines [report]. Animals Asia Foundation. March 2009.