The precious horns of rhinos, which have pushed the various species of the huge beasts to the brink of extinction, have long been associated with “cure-alls” to treat a wide range of ailments from cancer, to hangovers, to even erectile dysfunction.

But the reality of the actual meaning of the horns to buyers has not been fully understood in Vietnam – and the illegal poaching problem may be even harder to curb than traditionally believed, according to a new study.

Instead of actually believing the horns could be an actual cure for diseases, they are instead a kind of emblem, scientists report in the journal Human Dimensions of Wildlife.

“For us, the surprising trend is that horn is increasingly being used as a symbolic gesture to console terminally ill family members,” said Martin Nielsen, of the University of Copenhagen, one of the study authors. “The horns are intended to provide the ill with a final source of pleasure and to demonstrate that their families have done everything possible to help them.” 

Nielsen and colleague Hoai Nam Dan Vu, of the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit, looked at economics of the black market– and also the motivation of the consumers within it.

In-depth interviews with 30 recent purchasers of the rhino horns from Hanoi and Ho Chin Min City provided the background to the economics of the transactions.

The buyers of the horns said they used it to console terminally ill family members, as well as for treating hangovers and as a status symbol in a business environment, the study authors write.

But the purchasers were mostly interested in wild rhino horn, and would pay premiums over a horn from an animal on a farm.

Rhino poaching just for the horns has increased dramatically since 2008. More than 1,000 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa in 2016, the worldwide number of all the half-dozen species numbers around 30,000.

A single kilogram of the powdered horn is believed to cost approximately $80,000 on the illicit market, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Already a handful of the remaining rhino species have been rendered extinct over the last several decades.

The largest population of rhinos is the white rhinoceros in South Africa, which numbers approximately 20,000. Authorities in that country have taken to advanced DNA sequencing to improve the prosecution of poachers and their ill-gotten gain