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On 10th February 2016, WildAid and the Center for Biological Diversity formally petitioned the Obama administration to ban the sale and export of so-called “synthetic” rhinoceros horn. Trade in the biologically engineered faux horn could accelerate consumer demand in Asia for illegal wildlife products that has caused rhino poaching rates to skyrocket across Southern Africa. 


Rhino horn is coveted by some in Vietnam and China as a status symbol and as a panacea for ailments and diseases, from hangovers to cancer. There is no scientific evidence that rhino horn has medicinal value but rhinos in Africa and Asia are gravely imperilled due to demand for their horns. Several populations have already been poached to extinction, while others, such as the northern white rhino, have dwindled to just a few individuals. Experts believe the best way to save rhinos is to reduce consumer demand for rhino horn.

The good news is that history has shown that we can beat this illicit trade: Past public campaigns against rhino horn have previously succeeded in putting pressure on nations to crack down on the trade. For example, in 1994 the Clinton administration imposed unprecedented sanctions against Taiwan for its failure to stop rhino horn sales. The international scrutiny and well-publicised penalties resulted in Taiwan stepping up enforcement against the market, which also was banned in China and other countries. The rhino horn trade collapsed until economic growth in Vietnam, coupled with new rumours of rhino horn’s anti-cancer effects, revived consumer demand.

Introducing synthetic rhino horn into the market will not stop this trend, and may accelerate it. In their petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildAid argue that exporting synthetic rhino horn for sale in Vietnam and China will perpetuate myths of rhino horn’s medicinal potency and make the product more socially desirable at a time when consumer education campaigns in both countries are starting to successfully counter these dangerous trends.

“When something looks too good to be true, it usually is. Despite near-universal condemnation by conservation experts, the serial entrepreneurs peddling this product are playing a dangerous game for their own profit, while conveniently overlooking the genuine threat it poses for rhinos,” said Peter Knights, CEO of WildAid.

WildAid’s petition urges the administration to use its authority under a wildlife trade treaty and two laws enacted by Congress — the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act (RTCA) — to regulate and prohibit bio-fabricated or “cultured” products that are derived from imperilled wildlife species such as rhinos.

“Rhinos are being poached to extinction for their horn. That has to stop before we lose them forever,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international programme director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “U.S. law protects rhinos by prohibiting trade in their parts, and these ‘synthetic’ but biologically identical horns are no exception. We need to save rhinos by eliminating demand, not accelerating it.”

Seeking to exploit consumer demand, U.S.-based entrepreneurs are developing synthetic rhino horn that can’t be visually, chemically or genetically differentiated from actual horn. Founders of one venture capital-backed company, Pembient, have told media about its intention to sell both powdered rhino horn and “carvable” horn for the production of durable goods, like jewellery, libation cups and chopsticks.

The product is created in part by inserting the rhino genetic code into yeast, which then produces keratin, the protein that primarily constitutes rhino horn (and is also found in human hair and nails). Pembient then seeks to create an authentic “DNA signature” by combining the keratin with rhino DNA. Pembient’s plans for consumer goods containing rhino horn have included a beer brewed in China and a skin cream for distribution in Vietnam labelled “Essence of Rhino Horn.” More recently, Pembient has stated it will focus on producing solid, carvable horn — a product that would also likely be ground into powder form by many consumers.

Synthetic rhino horn raises several additional concerns. The product severely complicates law enforcement, as the real and synthetic products are meant to be visually indistinguishable, which will allow real, illegally-poached rhino horn to be laundered as lab-made. It also introduces a new, broader consumer base for rhino horn products, stimulating future demand for “real” rhino horn.

The petition urges that cultured horn be classified as a product derived from a rhino, as trade in such products is clearly prohibited by the ESA and the RTCA, and is strictly regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). WildAid and the Center for Biological Diversity are asking the service to issue new rules affirmatively banning trade in the product.

Rhino poaching is now at crisis levels. Over the past decade, largely due to demand for horn in Vietnam, poaching surged from 262 rhinos poached in 2008 in South Africa, where most of the killing has taken place, to 1,215 in 2014. New figures released last month indicate poaching had dipped slightly in 2015 but remains shockingly high, with 1,175 rhinos killed in South Africa. Countries such as Namibia and Zimbabwe, where poaching has been largely suppressed in recent years, saw dramatic increases in the rate of rhino poaching last year, often in areas once considered too remote to be vulnerable to poaching.

WildAid, African Wildlife Foundation and the Vietnamese organisation, CHANGE, are working to reduce rhino horn consumption in Vietnam and China, utilising similar methods deployed in a successful campaign to reduce consumption of shark fin in China by 50 percent to 70 percent. Chinese consumer awareness of the rhino horn trade’s devastating impact on Africa’s rhinos has grown rapidly over the past several years, and independent surveys showed the percentage of people who believe that rhino horn has medicinal value dropped by nearly 25 percent, from 58 percent in 2012 to 45 percent in late 2014. Consumer surveys of the Vietnamese market will be released this spring.

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