Looking for answers that pop through the boundaries of thought

A few thought-provoking ideas, reflections and entertainments from the deep south of Cape Town...

Some serious, some frivolous, some perhaps just ranting - see what you think!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Keeping the Horn in Place

South Africa’s rhinos are in big trouble. Our local attention focuses, naturally enough, on catching and hopefully re-educating the local poachers who are abandoning any remnants of traditional respect for our big game (if there’s any left after centuries of being dislocated from their lands).

But the bigger problem, obviously, is the entirely modern creation of a market for rhino horn. One idea currently being punted is to create a legal mechanism for this market to exist, which ignores the fact that the existence of this market is a deeply sad phenomenon in the first place. Although there’s no evidence of its general prescription as an aphrodisiac (that’s a western media myth), perhaps there’s still something about its prestigious uprightness that has fuelled the idea of its (entirely spurious) medicinal properties. It kind of goes parallel with the fervour for shark fin soup in the same region, which is decimating shark numbers worldwide. Shark fin soup is no ancient delicacy: it’s a modern phenomenon, costing ridiculous 5-figure sums for a bowl, with no nutritional benefits whatsoever, but with the prestige knowledge that you’re eating a hard pointy thing that’s been cut in manly fashion from a dangerous predator, or so the story no doubt goes somewhere in the psyche. It’s worth noting that before this latest craze, the biggest market for rhino horn was the Yemen, where men found them a virile material for making dagger handles.

There is something horribly materialistic about this quest for exotic medicine, stuff that isn’t available to just anybody, stuff that shows you’re really making it in life. It’s obvious and tragic with rhino horns, because there’s a “superfood” that research shows really isn’t one. Luckily, the reverse tends to be true in the West – plants like chia seeds have been rescued from extinction by their new-found superfood status, helped by some much-punted scientific research that supports their food value. But both the spurious superfood rhino horns and the genuine superfoods like maca roots (which really are supposed to improve male libido) are the subject of crazes to find a new health fix.

One exasperated doctor friend told me that he wishes his lovely conscious New Age friends would consider some of the more obvious and better-researched pills out there rather than trying out the latest fad. Why is this? Are we just too burnt and bruised by the pharmaceutical industry’s punting of pills with lots of side-effects, covering up the more holistic causes of problems, so that we don’t trust them to sell us anything any more? Are we fed up with doctors who claim to have all the knowledge, and we want our health back in our hands (like we want to control everything else we can about our own lives)? Are we just too autonomous these days? And so, when we’re given a chance at fixing ourselves that doesn’t involve relying on the official experts, will the inner rebel in all of us take it before double-checking?

I think not. We’ll never be truly autonomous. Rhino horn, spurious medicine as it may appear to those who’ve been lucky enough to read the right documents, is still doled out by Experts. Traditional medicine doctors, trusted by their people, added to which come today’s marketing experts (illegal though they may be in the horn trade) and the push for a sale from the business people (black market or legit) behind them. Plus it no doubt works for some, since 30% of all cures are attributable to the placebo effect, i.e. pure belief in some external cure, coupled with the body’s innate healing ability.

Rhino horn use is perhaps just one example of people desperately wanting to find some stability in our chaotic personal lives without having to really feel into the consequences of their actions on the natural world we claim to be custodians of. It’s just one step away from the billions of us who eat battery-farmed chickens or feedlot cattle or, as we have recently “unexpectedly discovered”, donkeys. And at the root is, I would argue, a spiritual hunger which many misguidedly assume can be materially satisfied with such tonics. A hunger for connection that can only truly be satisfied if we recognise the connections that are there already, face up to the consequences of our individual actions on the world around us – and recognise our power to get informed and choose positive or negative connections with our world.

I don’t have a solution to the rhino tragedy, except for a strong feeling that legitimizing the trade is not it. But I do know that spreading the word, helping Asian consumers to avoid buying it, and educating Africans about how desperate the situation is, is part of the waking up we can take on around the rhino – and that this applies to many other areas of consumer choice, from Indonesian vegetable/palm oil to West African child labour chocolate. There is no longer any time to turn a blind eye to our supermarket trolley contents.