Katy Tanis

Rhino Horns Are Basically Just Giant Toenails. And These Images Won’t Let You Forget It

Artists offer a clever—and disgusting—perspective on poaching (which is also disgusting).

September 22, 2016

Katy Tanis

If someone told you that drinking tea made from ground-up human toenails would cure your headache, would you start sipping?

That’s essentially what’s happening when people consume rhino horn in order to cure anything from headaches and snakebites to carbuncles and, um, “devil possession.” Rhino horns and pangolin scales—another favored ingredient among poachers and their ilk—are primarily made of keratin, the very same material that forms our own nails and hair. So drinking tea made from these horns and scales is just as effective as biting your nails or chewing your locks, which is to say: Not at all. It does, however, come with the side effect of extinction.

Even though the health claims surrounding rhino horns are bogus, demand continues to rise. Poachers killed at least 1,338 rhinos across Africa in 2015—the sixth consecutive year to see an increase in rhino poaching. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared the Western black rhino extinct in 2011, and three of the five remaining rhino species are critically endangered.

So for World Rhino Day, artists Katy Tanis and Molly Schafer are raising awareness with a project that highlights just how grotesque it is to wipe out animals for their parts—and it really hits the nail on the head. The duo invited artists to create works featuring rhinos and pangolins but replace the horns and scales with (shudder) human nail clippings. Their pièces de résistance are posted on social media alongside hashtags like #JustGiantToenails.

Some clever kids are even getting in on the action by painting their tootsies to look like rhinos.

Tanis and Schafer didn’t let themselves off the hook. Both dutifully emptied their nail clippers to contribute artwork to the effort—a process Tanis calls “weird and gross.”

“Eeeww!” is exactly the response they’re going for. They want the idea of poaching to invoke the same skeeved-out reactions as these hangnail-studded images. “Nails can be painted and seen as attractive, but as soon as a nail is no longer connected to its finger it becomes an object of repulsion and disgust,” Schafer says. “If only the same could be said for the keratin parts of rhinos and pangolins.” 


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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