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I’m With Stupid – February 22, 2013

by Todd Hartley

Todd Hartley-smallYears ago, at my high school, one particularly stupid kid was trying to score some marijuana. Another kid, this one utterly disgusting and duplicitous but rather enterprising, agreed to sell him some. The enterprising kid waited until the stupid kid forked over the money and then handed him a baggie filled with pubic hairs and dirty toenail clippings.

Don’t act appalled; I told you the kid was disgusting.

I can’t recall whether the stupid kid learned a valuable lesson or not — he actually was that dumb — but in a perfect world, that would have been the last time he tried to buy drugs, and the experience would have convinced him to give up his criminal ways and become an accountant or something. I’m not saying that’s necessarily what happened; I’m just laying out the ideal scenario.

The reason I bring this anecdote up is because I think we could all learn a lesson from my two old classmates. I think there’s a modern-day application of such a ruse that could convince certain people to give up an illegal habit while helping to ensure the long-term survival of threatened species.

First, however, a little background: I just finished watching a series of Discovery Channel programs about Africa. (If you haven’t seen them, I highly recommend them.) The first five episodes — Kalahari, Savannah, Congo, Cape and Sahara — explored different regions of the continent. The last two — “The Future” and “Africa: Behind the Scenes” — dealt with preservation efforts and the making of the series.

One of the saddest and most compelling recurring themes of the series was the fate of African rhinos, which are on the verge of extinction due to demand for their horns. Rhino horns, apparently, are worth twice their weight in gold, encouraging poachers to kill rhinos off at a rate of more than one per day in certain parts of Africa. If that pace holds, rhinos are expected to go extinct within our lifetimes.

As with many endangered species, including elephants and tigers, the blame for the demise of rhino populations can be placed squarely on the shoulders of Asian people, many of whom consider powdered rhino horn a potent medicine for treating such ailments as fever, rheumatism and gout. It’s currently illegal just about everywhere to traffic in rhino horns, but there is a thriving black market for them.

The flaw in the logic of those who use rhino horn medicinally is that there is no scientific evidence to back up their claims. According to an ecologist from the Zoological Society of London, those people would do just as well chewing on their fingernails. Why fingernails, you ask? It’s because rhino horns are made of a substance called keratin, which is also the main component in hair, fingernails and toenails.

You can see where I’m going with this now, can’t you?

It seems to me that if we all save up our clipped nails and ask for our trimmed hair back at barber shops and then grind those previously unwanted materials into a powder, it would be very difficult for anyone to tell the difference between that and powdered rhino horn. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to differentiate between the two.

We could then flood the Asian markets with hair-and-nail powder intentionally mislabeled as powdered rhino horn. The immediate effect of such a practice would be to drive down the value of actual rhino horns and, hopefully, make it not worth the effort and risk for poachers to kill rhinos.

The secondary effect of the whole endeavor would come when we fessed up to the subterfuge and admitted to the rhino-horn adherents that they’d actually been attempting to cure themselves with our dirty toenail and hair clippings. This, presumably, would make them so repulsed and suspicious of future purchases that they’d give up the practice of using rhino horn altogether for fear of ingesting more toenails.

Will this work? Of course not. Old habits die hard, and the tradition of using rhino horn as medicine dates back many centuries. I’m sure we’ll never convince the whole of Asia to stop doing something pointless just to save one of Africa’s coolest and most iconic species.

However, it would make me very happy to know that some jackass somewhere who cares so little about the fate of rhinos paid to drink a potion made from my pubic hairs instead of the horn of an innocent creature.

Sure, that sounds disgusting on my part, but you have to admit it’s pretty enterprising.

Todd Hartley promises he didn’t sell the hair and toenails at his school. He just wishes he did. 

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