Home > Planetwatch > Our Beliefs, Their Lives – Superstitious Carnage

Our Beliefs, Their Lives – Superstitious Carnage

There are times when I doubt if I live in 21st century. Despite advances in science, technology and medicine, irrational notions hold remarkable sway over us. Shark fin, rhino horn, vulture brain, leopard paws – so goes the list of items which we still believe to have miraculous, medicinal or aphrodisiacal powers. Even though scientific research has busted these claims, large number of people still rely on them.

Recently I visited Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. They had a fabulous section on sharks. A huge collection of shark teeth and jaws were on display (the shark’s body is made of cartilaginous skeleton). In one gallery the frozen exhibit showed a Mako shark attacking a Blue Fin Tuna. Several sections were devoted to facts about shark attacks. Contrary to popular belief, the number of unprovoked shark attacks on humans are few. The general behaviour of all species of shark bore no resemblance to the bloodthirsty, vengeful ones portrayed in ‘Jaws‘. After the visit, I developed a new found respect for this apex predator whose beauty, power and elegance was simply astounding. Sadly, sharks are being decimated worldwide. Destruction of habitat and irresponsible fishing apart, the most significant contributor to killing of sharks is the demand for shark fin. Sharks are caught, their dorsal and pectoral fins cut off and left to drown and bleed to death, just so that a chosen few can drink expensive shark-fin soup, basking in the glory of conspicuous consumption. With the rising affluence in China, demand for this aphrodisiacal ambrosia has gone up thereby endangering the survival of many shark species. The fact that shark fin is just tough, rubbery, tasteless cartilage is masked by the mesmerizing power of superstition.

Another case in point is Rhinoceros horn. Rhinos are hunted in Africa, India and southeast Asia for their horn which is simply a hard clump of keratin. The astronomical price of Rhino horn in international market has lead to heavy poaching in recent years. In several countries such as China and Vietnam, the horns are used in traditional medicine for curing fever. The medicinal effects of Rhino horn are far from proven, but the power of superstition continue to kill Rhinos nonetheless, driving them to extinction.

While Shark fin and Rhino horn are the most conspicuous instances, examples of the threat posed by superstitious beliefs to flora and fauna abound. In South Africa, Muti medicine practitioners kill vultures to extract their brains. They hope that consumption of vulture brains would enhance their clairvoyant powers. Snow leopards, a critically endangered species, are killed for their hide and bones which find use in traditional medicine.

The cruelty and utter meaninglessness of the destruction wrought by these blind beliefs are appalling. However, stemming from ignorance and rooted in tradition, such superstitions are difficult to eradicate. One can only hope that someday reason would triumph over ignorant faith.

Categories: Planetwatch
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