Synthetic rhino horn: Will it save the rhino?
Joint Statement by the International Rhino Foundation and Save the Rhino International
The rhino poaching crisis has given rise to a plethora of suggestions for how to tackle the problem. One of these is the proposed manufacture of synthetic rhino horn by various companies. But will the manufacture and sale of synthetic horn mean that fewer rhinos are poached? Or will it expand the market for such products, complicate law-enforcement, and lead to more rhino killings?
This article aims to set out the positions of the companies proposing to manufacture and sell synthetic rhino horn, and the counter-claims that synthetic horn will do nothing to drive down the demand for real rhino horn. Many of these points have already been discussed in detail on an excellent forum post on the subject hosted by Safaritalk, and we’d urge you to read the original post and follow-up discussion.
One such company is Rhinoceros Horn LLC, which in December 2012 planned to fund the marketing of a new, ethically sourced keratin protein product via the crowd-funding site, IndieGoGo.com. Another company working in this area is Pembient, which describes itself as “The De Beers of Synthetic Wildlife Products”. Pembient was quoted extensively in the media in January 2015, after it was chosen as one of 11 companies to benefit from an “accelerator class” held by IndieBio, following which each company will receive $50,000 in funding and access to the accelerator's lab for an entire year. And another is Stop Poaching Through Synthetic Rhino Horn.
How are these companies proposing to manufacture synthetic horn?
Each company has a different approach:
Rhinoceros Horn LLC proposes, “We've teamed up with the world's leading developer of keratin products, Keraplast Technologies, and using Replicine™ Functional Keratin® have produced a keratin protein powder that is biologically identical to the keratin from rhino horn. But unlike real rhino horn, Replicine™ Functional Keratin® is sustainably produced with no harm to animals and is proven in peer review medical publications to provide health benefits." Dr Rob Kelly, Chief Scientific Officer of Keraplast Technologies added "our Replicine™ Functional Keratin® technology allows us to isolate particular keratin protein fractions, including pure intact keratin intermediate filament proteins. This is the exact type of keratin that makes up rhino horn provided in an identical manner to how people currently use it, satisfying this market demand in an ethical and sustainable way. Replicine™ Functional Keratin® is the basis of a range of health care and personal products all backed by strong scientific evidence." (GlobeNewswire)
According to a report on BizJournals.com, “Pembient primarily engineers rhino horn powder in its labs, but is working toward developing solid rhino horn substitutes. Matthew Markus and his co-founder George Bonaci do this by duplicating the cells, proteins and deposits in a rhino horn so the synthetic version is genetically similar to the real thing.”
An article by Candice Erasmus discusses a different approach being taken by Stop Poaching Through Synthetic Rhino Horn: “Through the extraction of DNA via genuine Rhino horn, cells are to be grown and developed in in bio labs, CAD models of the horn are to be developed, and once the cells have reached completion in their growth phase, much like doctors have been able to grow and print ears, limbs and even as of late a kidney, a 3D micro printer will develop and produce a synthetic version of the rhino horn containing all DNA and chemical properties you would find in the horn that is being butchered off an animal.”
How close will this synthetic rhino horn be to the real thing?
Rhinoceros Horn LLC states that “Our product is biologically identical to rhino horn. How is this possible? Well, rhino horn is made of keratin protein. There are different types of keratin protein. Our product is a pure intermediate filament keratin protein, which is the exact keratin that rhino horn is comprised of. The only difference lies in the amino acids that make up our product (amino acids make proteins). The amino acids in our product are bioactive, meaning they can interact with the human body and give health benefits. For example, keratin can be used in skincare, hair-care and wound care products. (Our partner, Keraplast specializes in using keratin protein in such products). The rhino horn has amino acids that are not bioactive. This makes sense because their horns are for defense and foraging, and nothing else. Other than this difference, the two keratin protein powders are identical in every possible way: in composition, texture, smell, taste, etc.” (Safaritalk)
Pembient’s first batch of powder was “primarily protein-based and didn’t have any genetic components of a rhino” but since then, the company has apparently produced additional batches that “now include genetic components of a rhino itself.” (Africa Geographic)
According to a report prepared for the CITES Secretariat in April 2012 by Kristin Nowell, “Assessment of Rhino Horn as a Traditional Medicine”, rhino horn is entirely composed of hard alpha keratins, the type found in mammalian claws and hoofs, consists of imperfect repeats of seven amino acid sequences (called heptad repeats), and contains most of the common amino acids found in animal horn, in similar amounts.
How will this synthetic rhino horn be marketed and to whom?
It’s not clear whether the companies have resolved which market they are targeting: those who wish to buy a whole rhino horn, primarily to demonstrate their wealth and status such as the market now in place in Vietnam; or those who believe in the so-called medicinal properties of rhino horn, which is bought in smaller pieces or sold as powder, such as the market we see in China. Interviews with the companies suggest they hope to target both markets.
The target markets for each – full horn or ground powder – are quite different. A WWF-South Africa / TRAFFIC report in September 2013 identified three main current or future user groups:
- successful, well-educated men, over the age of 40 who live in Vietnam’s main urban centres and who value their luxury lifestyle. They buy whole horns “to signify their wealth” and may then display them or grind them to dissolve in rice wine, for example, to ward off the effects of a hangover or even snort the powder like cocaine
- a large “intender” group, who are not yet buying or using rhino horn, but who want to do so in future when they can afford it
- housewives, who wish to have a small supply of rhino horn in their medicine cabinets, in case their child has a fever, much as Western households would keep Aspirin, Paracetamol, or Ibuprofen to hand out
Rhinoceros Horn LLC says that it intends to “market it as a luxury brand item to the Chinese and Vietnamese people” and that the anticipated result is that as it wins market share “more Asians will go to Rhinoceros Horn for keratin powder.” (Safaritalk) The company is targeting the TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) market: “People in Southeast Asia use rhino horn as a traditional medicine with a wide range of applications, including as a remedy for hangovers and other illnesses, including cancer.” (GlobeNewswire)
Matthew Markus of Pembient says its product is “mostly targeted toward people in Asia who use rhino horns for medical reasons” and that he “wasn't interested in the long, arduous process of bringing a drug to market. Instead, he decided to tap into other potentials of the industry to solve an issue that isn't regulated by agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.” (BizJournals). He goes on to say it is “working toward developing solid rhino horn substitutes” (BizJournals) and “The company eventually wants to grow horns…A full horn is the trickiest of all and it could take a couple of years”. (Africa Geographic)
Pictures in Candice Erasmus’s article imply that Stop Poaching Through Synthetic Rhino Horn is aiming to create a full synthetic horn.
It is unclear how these companies will describe the properties of their “horns” in their marketing campaigns, given that they recognise that there is very limited, if any, medicinal value of rhino horn.
Will people want to buy synthetic rhino horn?
Pembient’s CEO Matthew Markus says “"We surveyed users of rhino horn and found that 45% of them would accept using rhino horn made from a lab," said Matthew Markus, the CEO of Pembient. "In comparison, only 15% said they would use water buffalo horn, the official substitute for rhino horn." (PRNewswire)
This is at odds with research carried out by TRAFFIC, “The South Africa – Vietnam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus: A deadly combination of institutional lapses, corrupt wildlife industry professionals and Asian crime syndicates”, which documented that the presence of large numbers of fakes or alternatives (e.g. water buffalo horn), estimated at up to 90%, on the market today simply encourages the wealthiest consumers to buy illegal rhino horn from trusted individuals, who they believe will sell them the real thing.
How will synthetic rhino horn be priced?
None of the companies has addressed this in press coverage to date. The assumption is that synthetic horn will be offered at a lower price than real horn sold by criminals. Will it have a minimum Recommended Retail Price?
How will synthetic horn be distinguished from real rhino horn?
None of the companies has (yet) addressed this. However, and particularly if they move to producing whole synthetic horns, there will be an obvious requirement to resolve this issue, not just for the potential buyer but also for law enforcement agencies in the countries where synthetic rhino horn is sold, in order to distinguish between illegal real horn and legal synthetic horn. The problem is particularly acute when horn is sold ground into powder.
The Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria in South Africa has developed the RHoDIS™ project, a Rhino DNA Index System that is collecting DNA samples of rhinos across sub-Saharan Africa to create a database using the unique DNA profile of individual rhinos. National stockpiles of rhino horn are at various stages of auditing and marking every rhino horn held, weighing and measuring them, inserting microchips and sending off samples to RHoDIS to be analysed, but there are still substantial numbers of rhino horns, in stockpiles and on living animals, which have not been microchipped or identified.
Will any proceeds from these synthetic rhino horns go towards rhino conservation?
Rhinoceros Horn LLC says “At present, we are less certain about the amount of funds to channel because we are still in the start-up phase, trying to fund-raise to produce our product. We would be happy to contribute a minimum of $1 million USD annually if we are profitable enough… However, we are still trying to start the initiative. It is best not to make promises so early if we don't know how things will pan out with our fundraising efforts.” (Safaritalk)
According to PRNewswire, “Pembient plans on unveiling its first product at IndieBio's demo day in early June. Limited quantities will be for sale shortly thereafter. A portion of all sales will go toward the protection and management of wild rhinos.”
Candice Erasmus says that Stop Poaching Through Synthetic Rhino Horn’s Andy Mossop and Dereck Crawford “intend on ensuring that all donations and funding that are allocated to this project are to be used in the rehabilitating of rhino’s [sic] all across the world and ensuring their protection from what seems to have to have become a mindless and cruel inconsideration for our wild life and a species already so rare.”
What is the impact on the synthetic horn business if trade in real rhino horn is legalised?
Rhinoceros Horn LLC tries to address this issue on the Safaritalk forum. After discussing the likelihood or not of South Africa tabling a proposal at the CITES Conference of the Parties in 2016, and the resulting discussion, the company says “As an organization, we feel there is not enough rhino horn to satisfy a growing market of millions upon millions of middle-class consumers in Southeast Asia. Therefore, as a business, we can still come in, satisfy that unmet demand with our product, and help where we can… What we are proposing is a solution that is highly efficient because it follows a for-profit model. This is because business organizations in general are highly reactive to market conditions and can act much faster than international bodies such as CITES can because such bodies tend to have highly formalized procedures that makes it difficult to get anything done quickly."
Unless this company is suggesting that all law-enforcement related to illegal rhino horn trade can be abandoned once synthetic horn is flooding the market, then it is hard to see how its initiative could be decoupled from formal measures such as CITES, including international oversight to verify that the for-profit model does not create negative consequences to which governments would have to react.
Will rhino poaching stop with the sale of synthetic rhino horn?
As Colman O’Criodain, wildlife trade specialist with WWF International, points out, “There is already a huge quantity of fake horn in circulation in Vietnam but that isn’t denting the poaching levels.” (Africa Geographic).
And as a commentator on Safaritalk points out, buying synthetic horn if you could afford the real thing would be like trying to convince Jennifer Lopez she'd really rather have cubic zirconia in her engagement ring. Isn’t marketing synthetic horn to the “intender” group of consumers likely to increase the number of people wishing to buy real rhino horn as soon as they can afford it? Isn’t it also likely to boost the profit margins of the top-tier of horn smugglers who will continue to market “the real thing” on an increasingly exclusive basis?
Furthermore, “wild” rhino horn might be perceived as more valuable / desirable / potent than “farmed” or lab-grown / synthetic rhino horn, as seen with other wildlife plant and animal products, e.g. tiger bone and ginseng. A report on Ensia explains, “The creation of a large cultivated ginseng industry has made wild ginseng root appear better and more desirable, driving prices up and increasing pressure on wild populations. Ginseng collecting has gone from a small seasonal occupation to a big money spinner in places like Appalachia. Illegal harvesting is rife and violent conflicts now occur over natural ginseng patches in formerly peaceful rural communities.”
Similarly, a Guardian article on plans to manufacture synthetic bear bile raises concerns that wild bears will not benefit: breeding bears isn’t cheap and it’s probably cheaper and easier to capture wild bears; having more bear bile available encourages TCM practitioners to prescribe it for a wider arrange of maladies; and that consumers will regard real bear bile as more authentic / potent than artificial bile.
Position of the International Rhino Foundation and Save the Rhino International:
In summary, we are opposed to the development, marketing and sale of synthetic rhino horn. As discussed above:
- Selling synthetic horn does not reduce the demand for rhino horn or dispel the myths around rhino horn and could indeed lead to more poaching because it increases demand for “the real thing”
- More than 90% of “rhino horns” in circulation are fake (mostly carved from buffalo horn or wood), but poaching rates continue to rise annually
- Synthetic horn could give credence to the notion that rhino horn has medicinal value, which is not supported by science
- Users buy from trusted sources and value “the real thing”
- The availability of legal synthetic horn could normalise or remove the stigma from buying illegal real horn
- It will take time to develop synthetic horn and meanwhile the poaching crisis continues
- How can consumers and law enforcement officials distinguish between legal synthetic horn that looks real, and illegal real horn?
- Companies benefitting from making synthetic horn have shown very little commitment to use their profits to help the core problem of rhino poaching; besides which, those profits would meet only a tiny fraction of the total rhino protection costs that would remain to be met as long as demand reduction campaigns falter, as they would with the marketing of synthetic horn
- Finally, the manufacture / marketing / sale of synthetic horn diverts funds and attention from the real problem: unsustainable levels of rhino poaching
Rhinoceros Horn LLC did not succeed in raising the required funding via IndieGoGo.com.