07/19/2013 10:55 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2013

You Might as Well Start Biting Your Nails

Two rhinos face each other, their heads low to the ground and their horns pointed at each other. A bull has come too near to a cow and her precious calf. She is an older cow, so her horn is magnificently long, over three feet. Her baby, on the other hand, barely even has a nub on her little face. Even this nub, however, is a liability: poachers are ruthless, and would kill an innocent calf for even the tiniest amount of horn.

The cow huffs air loudly out of her nose, a warning to the bull that he is too close. He doesn't heed this warning, and takes a step closer. The cow quickly spins towards him, growling and charging. They drop their heads lower and fence with their horns.

The horns make a loud tapping sound -- there's no good way to describe it -- but it sounds like fingernails drumming on a table, just amplified. And this is fitting: Both rhino horns and our fingernails are made of a fibrous structural protein called keratin.

Rhinos are being poached for their horns at a rate of over two per day. I do not need to explain that this is completely unsustainable. So what drives this inhumane and needless killing of endangered animals? What is so desirable about what is, essentially, a big, cone-shaped chunk of fingernail? How could humans think we have a better use for rhino horn than the rhino the horn is attached to?

In 1597, a man named Li Shih-chen wrote the Bencao Gangmu, a Chinese medical text that essentially named rhino horn as a panacea. Translated in 1931 by Bernard Read, the Bencao Gangmu was a valuable step forward in how traditional medicine was compiled and formatted; however, it also contains a plethora of information that has since been proven erroneous. One such incorrect piece of information is that rhino horn has medicinal qualities.

Trials were carried out in 1983 by Hoffmann-LaRoche for WWF/IUCN, and were published in The Environmentalist. They concluded that rhino horn contains no medicinal properties. Researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, however, found an antipyretic (anti-fever) effect in rats when they induced fevers in them. More contemporary analysis research was conducted by Dr. Raj Amin in 2008 at the Zoological Society of London, which reaffirmed the 1983 findings: rhino horn has no medicinal qualities. That is, you might as well be chewing your own nails.

Though it has been proven that rhino horn is no panacea and lacks all its purported medicinal qualities, belief in its properties is deeply embedded in Chinese culture, in addition to having symbolic worth. Currently, the largest market for rhino horn is in Vietnam, where a rumor that the horn can cure cancer has escalated demand. South Africa and Vietnam signed a Biodiversity Conservation and Protection Implementation Plan at the beginning of May; however, we have yet to see the rate of poaching diminish. Whether it's non-compliance or an inability to enforce the plan, Vietnam is therefore weakening any gains being made in rhino conservation in South Africa and elsewhere by not making changes.

Simply, poaching is fueled by demand in Vietnam and elsewhere. Demand is fueled by the misinformation that rhino horn has curative properties, specifically that it can cure cancer. We can help by negating this claim, and raising global awareness for the crisis-level plight of rhinos before it is too late.