By Frederic Friedel

Folk or traditional medicine is much admired in the West, as it is supposed to reflect the wisdom of the millennia. It is fine if it is restricted to herbal potions — well not fine, since that often keeps people from seeking proper, effective treatment. But at least third parties are not affected. Things become more serious when superstitious practices are endangering entire species of animals. In this article I want to explore how far irrational medical beliefs can go, what practices are still found in the world of the 21st century. You will not believe what the answer is.

Everyone knows that many species of noble animals are under sever threat, in fact facing extinction. This is usually the result of human encroachment on their habitats. But sometimes it is something worse — they are threatened by human superstition. Human crackpot beliefs.

There is nothing more poignant than seeing the carcass for a full-grown rhino, rotting in the jungle, with just its horn hacked off. If you have good nerves you can take a look at the second picture on this page, and if you really have nerves of steel (or stone) you can view this video, which is actually a Vietnamese government spot begging people to help fight the trade that is at the root of the problem.

Ironically one of the best strategies to prevent rhino poaching is to tranquilize them and then saw off their horns. The theory is that this will deter poachers from killing the animal, while no life threatening harm is done to the rhino.

In the case above, which is captured in a YouTube video, the horns of a black rhino cow are removed in Limpopo, South Africa. Unfortunately those efforts turned out to be in vain: the cow was killed by poachers, shot for what horns she had left at the time. And a calf she was nursing died close by her side from starvation after what may have been a number of days.

Why do people in Vietnam and China buy rhino horn, and why are they willing to pay up to $100,000 per kilogram, comparable to cocaine and gold, for illicitly poached and smuggled horn? It is clear that this black market price is driving this noble animal, which roams the savanna ten thousand miles away, to the brink of extinction.

The reason rhino horn is so expensive is that millions of people in China and Vietnam believe in medical theory that reaches over 2000 years into the past. Traditional Chinese medicine taught (and teaches) that rhino horn can treat rheumatism, gout, fever, typhoid, carbuncles, boils, snake bites, vomiting and “possession by devil”. To administer the horn it is ground into a powder and dissolved in hot water before being swallowed.

In recent times it has not been China that poses the gravest danger to the African rhino . The Ministry of health of the Peoples Republic removed rhino horn from the Chinese medicine pharmacopeia in 1993, and since then trade and use are illegal. Unfortunately there is even more extreme medical views held in Vietnam, where there is a new belief that rhino horn can cure cancer. And most shockingly: it has become a social drug, with members of the most affluent class in Vietnam using rhino horn to demonstrate their wealth and status. They consider it an aphrodisiac, detoxifying tonic or hangover cure. There are websites with slogans like “Rhino horn with wine is the alcoholic drink of millionaires”.

Need I say that rhino horn is the equivalent of deer antlers or horses’ hoofs. It consists solely of keratin which is not even absorbed by the human digestive system, and there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the claims of Chinese or Vietnamese medicine. A pack of aspirin or some drugstore disinfectant is vastly more potent than this hideous cure. Or you can simply bite your fingernails.

How far can irrational medical mythology go? We know that tigers have been and still are threatened by numerous superstitious beliefs associated with them in traditional Chinese medicine. The bones are used for making a curative tonic that helps avert spirits, its heart gives strength and courage, the brain cures laziness, claws give courage when they are worn on the body, its eyeballs help cure convulsions, its tail allegedly cures skin cancer.

One of the biggest markets for tiger parts is Japan, where trade in in endangered species is illegal, but importing wine, pills and powders made of them is not. Trade records indicate the import and export of tiger parts is substantial. The Zoological Society of London believes at least 1,900 kg of tiger bone were exported to Japan from Taiwan in 1990, an equivalent to 400–500 tigers. [Source: Trade in Tiger Parts in Tigers in Crisis]. And while I am writing this I read that the famous Tiger Temple located west of Bangkok, where tourists get to see tigers interacting affectionately with saffron-robed Buddhist monks, has just been shut down. It turns out that it was a slaughterhouse for tiger parts.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) seeks to adjust the balance between yin and yang forces in its patients. It uses approximately 1,000 plant and 36 animal species, including rhinoceros and tiger, in its pharmacopeia. Black bear bile is used to treat liver ailments and headaches. The widespread use of bear bile significantly reduced the population of wild bears, so large scale bear farming was introduced.

On these farms bears are confined to small cages where their bile is extracted through catheters, a painful and sometimes deadly ordeal. According to CNN, more than 7,000 bears are kept on 200 farms in China.

I could go on with this list of horrors. Musk from musk deer is the basis of some 300 TCM prescriptions (and of various remedies in Western homeopathic medicine) — China’s demand for musk is estimated at 500–1,000 kilograms per year, which requires the musk glands of at least 100,000 deer. The seahorse is used as a treatment for kidney ailments, circulatory problems, and impotence, and is found in around 90 health and medicine products sold in China and elsewhere. Thirty-two countries and regions are involved in harvesting some 20,000,000 seahorses each year. [Source: Traditional Chinese Medicine and Endangered Animals in Britannica Advocacy for Animals].

But the question in this article is: How far can you go? Horrifying as the above examples of ignorance and superstition are, they still do not represent the ultimate extreme of human irrationality, of barbarous and murderous behaviour driven by ancient beliefs that we still encounter today. What could be worse than the examples described above?

How about hunting human beings for body parts which have curative and magical properties when eaten? You heard me right, exactly that has been done for decades in African countries such as Tanzania and Burundi, and as I write this (on June 7, 2016) the news is full of a dramatic rise of “albinophagy” in Malawi. You can google Malava+albino, but once again you will need strong nerves to view the images of the killed and dismembered victims and read about their plight.

Albinism is a congenital, hereditary disorder in which the body cannot produce melanin. The skin, eyes and hair lack their usual colour. Albino children are at a disadvantage: they experience alienation and as a result tend to avoid social interactions, they are less likely to complete schooling, or find employment or partners.

But that is not the worst of the matter. Many cultures around the world have developed hideous beliefs regarding albinism. In Africa witch-doctors in some countries have convinced people that potions made from body parts of albinos are beneficial to health, happiness and even able to bring luck in life. This leads to albinos being kidnapped and killed, or dismembered, their limbs being sold for up to $75,000 (estimate of National Geographic). Once again: if you have the nerves you can read this story or watch this news report.

Another harmful and false belief is that sex with an albinistic woman will cure a man of HIV. This leads to rapes and often to subsequent HIV infection.

That is how far medical superstition can go, that is the kind of damage it can do. And is still doing in the 21st century. What are we going to do about it?

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.