Myths Driving Wildlife Extinction

Kendrick Frazier

We were on a walking trek in wilderness Tanzania. Our guide, Thad, had obtained a special license for us to trek and camp in a part of the eastern Serengeti miles from any road, far from the areas most visitors see. Suddenly our tiny group came across a freshly abandoned poachers’ camp. Thad, an American born in Tanzania who has lived all his life there, was furious. So was his assistant, a member of one of the local tribes. They set about destroying the camp. They angrily tore it apart, while the rest of us nervously looked over our shoulders wondering if the poachers were watching from the hills above. That was in 2009. Since then, as Bob Ladendorf and Brett Ladendorf report in this issue’s cover article “Wildlife Apocalypse,” poaching of big game in Africa has vastly accelerated. In 2005, sixty rhinos in Africa were killed for their horns or as trophies. Since then, 7,000 more have been killed. The situation for elephants is even worse. Some 30,000 elephants are poached every year for their ivory. As one observer says, “Traders in ivory actually want the extinction of elephants.” It pushes prices ever higher.

It’s a sad and maddening tragedy happening right in front of us, and it is driven largely by myth and superstition—the bogus idea prevalent in certain Asian countries that rhino horns and elephant tusks have medicinal value as tonics, blood-purifiers, or aphrodisiacs. If you ever get asked, regarding superstitions and myths, “What is the harm?” you need only point to this extinction event driven by mythology occurring right now. It is tragic. And heart-breaking.

We scientific skeptics continually debate issues of skepticism among ourselves. A lot of that self-scrutiny is going on right now, and it’s generally healthy. In this issue’s “Skepticism Reloaded,” a longtime member of our editorial board and a leading figure in skepticism in Europe, Amardeo Sarma, asks (and suggests some succinct answers to) the relevant questions: Why do we do what we do? (“To seek a world where pseudoscientific claims do not deceive or harm anyone.”) What makes us different? (We take on issues others are silent about; we focus on delusions, self-delusion, and wishful thinking that can lead us astray; and we are truly nonpartisan and independent.) He argues that scientific skepticism is central to everyone’s well being, whether they know it or not. He emphasizes skepticism’s global nature. In a section titled “Skeptics Are Human,” he calls for greater diversity and candidly discusses problems caused by improper behaviors. He talks about the need for more professionalism and better branding. He suggests future priorities. “We have a cause of utmost significance,” he writes. We must do as good as we possibly can.

Claims about cell phones and cancer have emerged again with a report this year from the National Toxicology Program that seems to show a few troubling associations. In a Research Review in this issue, Christopher Labos, a cardiologist and epidemiologist, and Kenneth R. Foster, a scientist who has extensively studied the interaction of nonionizing radiation and biological systems, provide a calm and scientifically reasoned assessment of those results. They find the varied results so inconsistent that random chance may be the most operative cause.

—Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.


We were on a walking trek in wilderness Tanzania. Our guide, Thad, had obtained a special license for us to trek and camp in a part of the eastern Serengeti miles from any road, far from the areas most visitors see. Suddenly our tiny group came across a freshly abandoned poachers’ camp. Thad, an American …

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