Synthetic / bio-fabricated rhino horn: Will it save the rhino?
International Rhino Foundation
Save the Rhino International
Joint Statement by the International Rhino Foundation and Save the Rhino International (July 2016)
Over the past two years or so, Save the Rhino International (SRI) and the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) have been monitoring the progress of four US-based companies that have announced their intentions – with varying degrees of success – to produce synthetic or bio-fabricated rhino horn, and occasionally also other products including e.g. elephant ivory, lion bones or pangolin scales. The proposed development of synthetic / bio-fabricated rhino horn should concern a wide range of stakeholders:
- All international governments that must implement the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization (ABS) to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which provides a transparent legal framework for the effective implementation of one of the three objectives of the CBD: the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources. The Nagoya Protocol has been adopted by 71 Parties (75 Ratifications ) (92 Signatures )
- Law enforcement officials in rhino Range States, and rhino horn transit and consumer countries, who would be required to distinguish between illegal real rhino horn and potentially legal synthetic / bio-fabricated horn
- Those people or organizations in favour of a legal international trade in rhino horn, who may be concerned about synthetic / bio-fabricated horn undercutting their potential marker
- Those people or organizations working on demand-reduction and behaviour-change strategies in rhino horn consumer countries, who may be concerned that allowing trade in synthetic / bio-fabricated horn maintains and develops a consumer base that wishes to progress to real horn
Opposition to plans to produce synthetic / bio-fabricated rhino horn
Save the Rhino International / International Rhino Foundation position
In response to numerous media releases about the intent of several companies – Rhinoceros Horn LLC, Pembient and Stop Poaching Through Synthetic Rhino Horn – proposing to manufacture and sell synthetic / bio-fabricated rhino horn, in June 2015 SRI and IRF published a joint statement on their respective websites, which outlined the issues and claims:
Drawing on interviews and articles published online, the statement asked a series of questions and expanded upon them:
- How are these companies proposing to manufacture synthetic / bio-fabricated horn?
- How close will this synthetic / bio-fabricated rhino horn be to the real thing?
- How will this synthetic / bio-fabricated rhino horn be marketed and to whom?
- Will people want to buy synthetic / bio-fabricated rhino horn?
- How will synthetic / bio-fabricated rhino horn be priced?
- How will synthetic / bio-fabricated horn be distinguished from real rhino horn?
- Will any proceeds from these synthetic / bio-fabricated rhino horns go towards rhino conservation?
- What is the impact on the synthetic / bio-fabricated horn business if trade in real rhino horn is legalised?
- Will rhino poaching stop with the sale of synthetic / bio-fabricated rhino horn?
Having considered the available media coverage, SRI and IRF concluded that they were “opposed to the development, marketing and sale of synthetic rhino horn” for the following reasons:
- There is no evidence that selling synthetic / bio-fabricated horn would 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 / bio-fabricated horn could give credence to the notion that rhino horn has medicinal value, which is not supported by sound science
- Users buy from trusted sources and value “the real thing”
- The availability of legal synthetic / bio-fabricated horn could normalise or remove the stigma from buying illegal real horn
- It will take time to develop synthetic / bio-fabricated horn and meanwhile the poaching crisis continues
- How can consumers and law enforcement officials distinguish between legal synthetic / bio-fabricated horn that looks real, and illegal real horn?
- Companies benefitting from making synthetic / bio-fabricated 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 / bio-fabricated horn
- Finally, the manufacture / marketing / sale of synthetic / bio-fabricated horn diverts funds and attention from the real problem: unsustainable levels of rhino poaching
Since publishing this statement in 2015, SRI and IRF have identified further concerns including the following:
- Allowing the trade of synthetic / bio-fabricated rhino horn would rely on quick and accurate analysis of samples to determine whether they are real, synthetic / bio-fabricated or fake. However, in the past decade, out of 61 seizures of rhino horn in China, samples from only one of these seizures have been sent to the RhODIS Veterinary Genetics Laboratory in China for analysis
- The manufacture of synthetic / bio-fabricated bear bile has not reduced the practice of bear farming, as consumers prefer the real thing (Dutton et al., 2011; Hankins, 2009), and medicinal practitioners are reluctant to prescribe alternatives
- Traffickers caught with real rhino horn may be able to use a legal defence that they thought they were transporting synthetic / bio-fabricated horn
- The “Gresham’s Law” (e.g., Bernholz and Gersbach, 1992) analogy used by Pembient is not a good comparison, in that legal and illegal markets do not necessarily behave the same way; the breakeven point for real, poached rhino horn may be much lower than the baseline established by Pembient for its bio-fabricated product, and finally that Gresham’s Law assumes buyers are blind, while criminal syndicates may find ways of certifying that their products are real
- The Nagoya Protocol issue: is it ethical for a US-based company to profit from a product based on genetic material from several developing countries without a clear means of compensation?
NGO coalition position
On World Rhino Day 2015 (22 September), a coalition of 10 NGOs published a joint statement (Annamiticus website, 2015).
This coalition, which included Education for Nature-Vietnam, Annamiticus, WildAid, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Born Free Foundation, Environmental Investigation Agency, Outraged South African Citizens Against Poaching, WildlifeRisk-Hong Kong, African Wildlife Foundation and Wildlife Protection Society of India, warned that “the development and distribution of a synthetic / bio-fabricated alternative to real rhino horn runs the very real risk of only exacerbating the rhino crisis by removing the stigma of rhino horn consumption and creating unnecessary obstacles for law enforcement.” Further grounds for concern were articulated as follows:
- “Introducing rhino horn from alternative ‘legal’ sources into an unpredictable market could stimulate further demand, provide a loophole into which poached rhino horn can be introduced into the market, and create huge challenges for enforcement authorities, putting the world’s remaining rhinos under even more pressure,” Born Free Foundation and Born Free USA
- ”Given the physical and emotional exhaustion being felt by conservationists in South Africa, the idea that some American company is going to make a fortune by increasing the threat to our rhinos is too much to bear. These people may think they have all the answers, but they have no idea what they’re dealing with. It’s our rhinos that will suffer as a result,” Outraged South African Citizens Against Poaching
- “Pembient is completely out of touch with the realities of wildlife trafficking, and has not once considered how harmful its product will be to law enforcement efforts on the front lines in Africa and Asia,” Annamiticus
- “Pembient risks undermining all the progress already undertaken in Vietnam by giving credibility to scientifically unproven medicinal beliefs, compromising enforcement, and potentially stimulating demand, while failing to address a key issue: status-driven rhino horn users want real horn from wild rhinos,” Education for Nature-Vietnam
Fauna and Flora International position
In January 2016, in an article on their website, FFI outlined a series of reasons why it believes synthetic / bio-fabricated horn will not save the rhino, summarised as follows:
- synthetic / bio-fabricated rhino horn does not have the same symbolic or medicinal value as the genuine article
- genuine wildlife products are considered superior to farmed or synthetic / bio-fabricated alternatives
- the availability of a cheaper synthetic / bio-fabricated substitute may amplify future demand for the real thing
- flooding the market with synthetic / bio-fabricated rhino horn contributes little to demand reduction efforts
- the work of law enforcement agencies will become more complicated if they have to distinguish between real, fake and synthetic / bio-fabricated rhino horn
- the availability of synthetic / bio-fabricated horn may remove the stigma attached to buying an illegally-traded product
- consumer research by synthetic / bio-fabricated horn manufacturers has not sought to assess whether synthetic / bio-fabricated horn would be accepted as a real substitute for genuine rhino horn
Finally, FFI called into question the motivation of companies involved in synthetic / bio-fabricated horn production.
Center for Biological Diversity and WildAid position
In February 2016, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildAid petitioned the Obama government, via US Fish & Wildlife Service, to use its authority under a wildlife trade treaty and two laws enacted by Congress — the Endangered Species Act and the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act — to regulate and prohibit bio-fabricated or “cultured” products that are derived from imperilled wildlife species such as rhinos. (Center for Biological Diversity website, 2016).
The “Petition to ban the import, export and sale of cultured rhinoceros horn and cultured products of other protected wildlife species” considers the legality of synthetic / bio-fabricated rhino horn as regards the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act (RTCA) and concludes that “as the commercial import, export, and interstate sale of cultured rhino horn is already banned under the ESA, CITES, and the RTCA, and any other cultured product of an endangered - or CITES Appendix I-listed species is banned by the ESA and CITES”, the petitioners therefore “urge the Service to exercise its authority and obligations under these laws to immediately prohibit import, export, and sale of these cultured products and to timely promulgate regulations affirmatively banning such trade.”
Zoological Society of London position
In Spring 2016, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) developed an internal position paper on synthetic / bio-fabricated wildlife products, so that its staff could respond to media enquiries on the subject. The paper considered three tests that must be satisfied in order to synthetic / bio-fabricated wildlife products to act as desirable substitutes for the real product: perfect substitution, strong governance, and consumer(s) preferences.
The paper then considered the specific case of rhino horn, drawing upon case studies of other synthetic / bio-fabricated wildlife products, concluded that “synthetic rhino horn meets none of the conditions that appear to be important for reducing demand,” and stated that “ZSL would be opposed to supplying synthetic rhino horn as a solution to illegal rhino poaching.”
Pembient’s responses to NGO opposition
Media interviews with Pembient’s founders since some of these position statements were published make it clear that the company has revised its thinking on the type of product it intends to market. For example, it no longer plans a partnership with a Chinese company to manufacture and sell beer containing powdered rhino horn. (It is unclear which party decided to withdraw.) Pembient no longer intends to market powdered rhino horn for luxury face creams in Vietnam, having previously launched a video advertisement, in Vietnamese, on YouTube. Instead, Pembient’s most recent announcements say that it intends to focus on whole bio-fabricated rhino horns, targeted at the luxury carving market.
Similarly, the launch date for its bio-fabricated rhino horn has been delayed. While reports in early 2015 referred to beginning to trade on World Rhino Day (22 September) 2015, later reports talked about a launch date in May / June 2016.
The authors of this paper have not been able to find any media statements by Pembient that address questions over how its bio-fabricated rhino horn will be marketed (as bio-fabricated or as real?) and through which outlets / trading partners it will be sold.
Since the IUCN SSC African Rhino Specialist Group meeting in February 2016, other organizations have also taken an interest in the rhino horn issue.
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
According to Mike Knight, Chair of the AfRSG, the IUCN is considering producing a position paper on the production of synthetic / bio-fabricated wildlife products; however a planned workshop at the 2016 AfRSG meeting was cancelled, owing to the Chair’s perceived lack of interest by participants in the potential offered by companies like Pembient.
An IUCN press release in October 2015 reported on a consultative meeting organized jointly by the Pakistani Ministry of Climate Change and the IUCN to discuss the possibility of incorporating biosafety concerns into the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP). Concerns were expressed that the Cartagena Protocol only covered living organisms and not new synthetic products, and said that experts found it “alarming that natural products were being replaced with synthetic products,” which “has serious socio-economic implications as it enhances poverty, impacting the growers of the natural products.”
The authors of this paper feel that it would be useful if the AfRSG were to present a submission on the particular concerns around synthetic / bio-fabricated rhino horn to the IUCN.
TRAFFIC has recently published an article by Steven Broad and Gayle Burgess on synthetic wildlife products in TRAFFIC Bulletin vol 28, No. 1, April 2016, entitled “Synthetic biology, product substitution and the battle against illegal wildlife trade”.
The article frames the issue, discussing theories of product substitution, product substitution in the wildlife trade, challenges of strategic substitution and the rise of synthetic wildlife substitutes, and then looks at “The opportunities and risks of trading synthetic rhinoceros horn – a case example”. The article differs from other NGO positions in that it considers the success factors required, advantages and disadvantages for two contrasting marketing methodologies: overt alternative, whereby synthetic rhino horn is clearly identified as a synthetic product; and covert substitution, whereby synthetic rhino horn is marketed and sold as if it were the real thing, setting these out in a summary table before discussing the implications and viability of using synthetic horn in more detail.
The authors offer some “tentative conclusions” and say that it “would be rash to rule out the possibility that trade in synthetic rhinoceros horn could play a role in future conservation strategies” but point to “some important questions that need to be addressed in judging the likely viability and impact of any approach to the use of synthetic rhinoceros horn as a strategic intervention to undermine trade in natural rhinoceros horn.”
The United States of America has submitted a document for consideration at the CITES 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17), under the heading “Interpretation and implementation of the Convention; Compliance and Enforcement; Actions to Combat Wildlife Trafficking”.
Paragraphs 21-26 inclusive address the issue of wildlife products produced from synthetic or cultured DNA (Pembient says its rhino horn is bio-fabricated from rhinoceros DNA) and, in paragraph 29, recommends that CITES Parties “adopt draft decisions contained in Annex 1 regarding CITES controls for specimens of CITES-listed species produced from synthetic or cultured DNA.”
Bernholz, P. and Gersbach, H. (1992). "Gresham's Law: Theory." The New Palgrave Dictionary of Money and Finance, vol. 2., 1286-288. Macmillan: London and Basingstoke.
Dutton, A., Hepburn, C. and Macdonald, D. (2011). A stated preference investigation into Chinese demand for farmed vs. wild bear bile. PLoS ONE 6(7): e21243. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021243
Hankins, A. (2009). Producing and marketing wild simulated Ginseng in forest and agroforestry systems. Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication 354–312. Virginia State University.
Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity United Nations Environmental Programme, (2011). Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to the Convention on Biological Diversity: text and annex. Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Montreal, Quebec, Canada,