The world of illegal wildlife trade is devastating, but it’s also thriving. A desire for things like alternative medicines, meat, and trophies fuels the mass killing of countless endangered species, threatening their existence. In her new book, Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking, science journalist Rachel Love Nuwer investigates this world, talking to its criminals, customers, and the people trying to shut it all down.
In the book, Nuwer describes her travels to wildlife trafficking hotspots in 10 countries. She saw killing fields in Africa and was nearly trampled by a bull elephant, explored Chinese black markets selling tiger bones and rhino horns, and accompanied a hunter in Vietnam on a search for endangered pangolins.
Nuwer went undercover, occasionally using gadgets like a secret camera embedded in a watch, and even secured an offer for a bag of illegal pangolin scales one afternoon in a dark alley in China. Her journey reads like a thrilling piece of fiction—which makes it even more heartbreaking when you remember the events are true.
Below is an excerpt from Poached, in which Nuwer recounts the history of rhino horn’s use in traditional Chinese medicine, the beliefs that continue to drive demand for the horn today, and a personal encounter with the last male northern white rhino on the planet.
Rhino horn evolved alongside other traditional medicines in China, yet it has always been seen as something extra special, something exotic and even semi-magical. Oddly enough, a millennia-old mix-up with unicorns, of all things, is likely to blame. These mythic creatures first turned up in Chinese texts in 2697 BCE, centuries before their Western debut in ancient Greek records. Around the world, the unicorn myth may have been sparked by a common catalyst: fossils of Elasmotherium (a.k.a. the giant rhinoceros of Siberia). That twenty-foot-tall, four-ton behemoth ranged across Eurasia as recently as 29,000 years ago, and its remains are notable for the massive, unicorn-like horn that sprouted from the center of its forehead.
Rhinos look a bit like awkward, oversized unicorns, and, indeed, they have been conflated with those mythic creatures throughout the ages. A fourth-century CE Chinese text describes rhino horn as useful for treating snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid fever, food poisoning, and more, while “unicorn horn” (likely also rhino horn) was said to detect the presence of poison.
Given all these purported properties, rhino horn became one of the most precious and pricey materials in traditional Chinese medicine. Although customarily prescribed as a cooling agent, one thing that rhino horn was never traditionally used for in China was sex. This runs counter to a colorful urban legend that has been propagated for decades by naive Westerners. Based on extensive research, the late rhino expert Esmond Bradley Martin believed the myth got going around 1870, when white traders in Zanzibar came into contact with Gujarati merchants from India who, unlike the Chinese, actually did use rhino horn as an aphrodisiac, by mixing powdered horn with water and applying it to their penises before sex. The factually flaccid mix-up has been repeated ever since.
Myths aside, no compelling evidence supports even rhino horn’s actual traditional uses, which isn’t surprising, because rhino horn is basically equivalent to a big mass of hair. Western science–based findings tend to do little to shake true believers’ faith in traditional medicine, however. “Belief in traditional medicine is so ingrained in some parts of the world that it is almost religious in nature,” wrote John Sellar in The U.N.’s Lone Ranger. To tell a rhino horn user otherwise would be like “telling an evangelist that there is no scientific evidence to demonstrate the existence of God.”
Rhinos have been killed for their horns for millennia, but in the mid-aughts, a new surge of rhino poaching began sweeping through Africa. No one knows what triggered it. Most likely, it was a confluence of factors that created a rhino horn renaissance in the East—as status symbol, objet d’art, and consumable.
Vietnam quickly became the number one destination for rhino horn. Its popularity there coincided with some peculiar new trends that break from tradition, including its use as a treatment for cancer. This is not the first time that too-good-to-be-true medical claims have been made about the material. In 1986, rumors flew that rhino horn could treat AIDS, and in 2009 some purported that it cured SARS. Many believe that horn hawkers themselves spread such stories to increase sales.
The patient zero (or media story zero) behind the cancer rumor has never been identified. But belief in rhino-horn-as-cancer-cure is now firmly in place, especially for the desperate. Stories have circulated of rhino horn touts—including hospital staff—pushing their product in cancer wards and of unscrupulous specialists at Vietnamese universities who test users’ horns to ensure they are legitimate.
A much more common new use of rhino horn, however, is hangover prevention, especially among wealthy urban men. Given the material’s historic role in detecting and removing poison, this sort of makes sense; at high levels, alcohol is, after all, just a fun poison. As a night of partying winds down, among some circles there’s no better way to earn your friends and colleagues’ respect than by breaking out your rhino horn and sharing it with everyone. It is, as one Vietnamese website put it, the “drink of millionaires.”
That rhino horn doesn’t actually work well or at all for any of these things doesn’t seem to matter; the placebo effect can be powerful. Tuan Bendixsen, Vietnam director of the non-profit group Animals Asia, has met plenty of rhino horn users with college degrees who swear by it. For example, when his father-in-law fell ill recently, Bendixsen spent a lot of time at the hospital and often chatted with other visitors in the shared ward. One woman told him that her oldest son had once come down with a bad fever that Western medicine could not cure.
Hearing about her desperate situation, a friend gave her some rhino horn. Within half an hour, she said, her son’s fever had broken. “I understand what you’re saying about wildlife products and protection,” she told Bendixsen. “But if my son or daughter gets a fever again, I will use rhino horn.”
Overhearing them, another woman in the ward chimed in: “My uncle had stomach cancer, and the doctor sent him home to prepare for death. A friend gave him rhino horn, and a year later, he’s still alive. Explain that!”
Bendixsen admitted that he could not.
“This is why we’re losing,” he sighed. “I was sitting in a ward with six people—just normal people—and two of them have used rhino horn. If you say you used it and it worked, then that’s a thousand times stronger than any study showing whatever non-effect.”
All this demand is having a profound effect on wild rhinos. About 1,300 rhinos—around 5 percent of Africa’s total population—are killed every year, out of a total global population of less than 30,000. “Three rhinos will be killed in South Africa today for their horn, simply because the trade has come into vogue in Vietnam,” said Crawford Allan, senior director of TRAFFIC.
If poaching trends continue, losses will soon exceed births. Some impacts are already irreversible, however—or will probably be in the near future. In 2011, the western black rhino, a subspecies of the black rhino, was declared extinct, and only two northern white rhinos remain alive today.
The last male northern white rhino passed away in early 2018, but I met him, purely by chance, during a 2016 visit to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. I had never heard of him or his subspecies’ sad story before that brief encounter—but it left a profound impact.
His name, we were told by a keeper, was Sudan, and to me, he looked like any other rhino: placidly munching on some hay, seemingly unaware of the cameras, people, and general buzz around him. All the special attention, the keeper explained, was because Sudan happened to be the last male northern white rhino in the world.
Last—huh? I assumed I must have heard this wrong. But no, I realized as the keeper continued his speech, I had not misunderstood.
“There’s only three northern white rhinos remaining, and they all live here,” the keeper said. “After thirty years in captivity at a zoo in the Czech Republic, they weren’t breeding, so people brought them here to see if they could get them to do something. But Sudan is forty-three years old, and the two females can’t have babies. There’s a plan to collect ova and do in vitro fertilization with stored sperm, then implant the embryo into a southern white rhino surrogate. This might save the northern white rhino from extinction.”
My head spun trying to make sense of all these details as I waited my turn to approach Sudan for a photo. To be the very last of your kind, well, what a weight, I thought. Munching away, though, Sudan seemed blissfully unaware of this burden.
I placed a tentative hand on his craggy back while Zac Mutai, his longtime human companion, stood nearby and softly cooed, “Sudaaaaaaan, Sudaaaaaaan,” over and over again. Beneath Sudan’s bark-like skin, I could feel the slow heaves of his breath. I turned and smiled awkwardly at the camera, unsure of whether I should look somber or happy. It was hard not to think of finality of extinction in the presence of this deceptively placid animal, who stood so very close to the black hole of oblivion.
“Bye, Sudan,” I quietly said instead. “Thanks.”
Rachel Love Nuwer’s new book, Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking, was published in September 2018 and can be purchased here.