Could synthetic rhino horns help save the rhino?

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A controversial proposal to manufacture synthetic rhino horn at a fraction of the black market price has drawn sharp criticism from conservationists, who believe it will not reduce demand for the “real thing.”

Could synthetic rhino horns help save the rhino?
  • A San Francisco-based company plans to produce 3D-printed synthetic rhino horns.
  • Experts believe this will lead to a greater demand for the “real thing” rather than satisfy demand.
  • Evidence from previous legal trade in high-value wildlife products suggests it will not reduce demand.

First came the horn

From knee joints to human organs, and from prosthetics for pets to guns, it seems that the limits of 3D printing are bound only by imagination. Taking 3D printing to the next step are the founders of a start-up company, Pembient, who want to print synthetic rhino horns.

Matthew Markus, one of Pembient’s founders, stated in an email interview with Wildtech that he has had the idea for making synthetic rhino horns for about two decades. “It originated from a wish that physical goods could be copied as easily as bits in a computer. Within the last couple of years, biotechnology has advanced to the point where fantasy is turning into reality. That’s why lab-grown leather (Modern Meadow), cow-free milk (Muufri), and chicken-free egg whites (Clara Foods) have all started to emerge. I view our undertaking as a natural extension of this movement to remove animals from commerce, a movement led by New Harvest.”

So went the rhinos

Currently, about 29,000 rhinos survive worldwide in the wild. Most are southern white rhinos, found in southern and eastern Africa; fewer than 3,500 rhinos remain in Asia. From nearly 500,000 rhinos across Asia and Africa at the beginning of the 20th century down to 70,000 in the 1970s, the population of these herbivores continues to plummet, mainly due to poaching. There is only one male northern white rhino left  in the world.

Rhino species and subspecies Population
Southern white rhino  (Ceratotherium simum simum) 20,405
Northern white rhino  (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) 3
Eastern black rhino  (Diceros bicornis michaeli) 799
South Western black rhino  (Diceros bicornis bicornis) 1,957
South central black rhino  (Diceros bicornis minor) 2,299
Asian greater one-horned rhino  (Rhinoceros unicornis) 3,333
Sumatran rhino  (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) <100
Javan rhino  (Rhinoceros sondaicus) 58-61

Poaching for horns is seen as the biggest threat to rhinos, and it has increased enormously in the last five years. According to Save the Rhino, in 2014, poachers killed 1,215 rhinos in South Africa, about ten times more animals killed than in 2009.

Kruger white rhinos_web
White rhinos in South Africa looking their full size. Photo credit: George Powell

Why the huge increase?  In the early 2000s, a Vietnamese politician claimed that rhino horn cured his cancer, which sent prices of rhino horns surging.  One kilogram of rhino horn can fetch up to $100,000, “which exceeds, per unit weight, that of gold, diamonds, or cocaine” (Ripple et al., 2015).

A 2013 study in Vietnam that surveyed 720 individuals in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City showed that most Vietnamese believe rhino horn is a cure for hangovers and an aphrodisiac, in addition to the recent claim that it can cure cancer. Traditional Chinese texts cite rhino horn as a cure for “snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning, and devil possession.”

What makes a rhino horn?

Researchers at Ohio University found that rhino horns, which are composed of keratin, are not simply clumps of modified hair, but are reinforced with dense calcium and melanin deposits and have a structure similar to hooves of horses, turtle beaks and cockatoo bills. The concentrations and distributions of calcium and melanin explain the curve and sharp tip of the horn: calcium deposits strengthen the core of the horn, and melanin protects it from ultraviolet rays of the sun. Though the effects of diet, stress and temperature are still unknown, the horn is sharpened when the rhino fights with other animals or digs up roots.

Sudan-white-rhino_CNN
Sudan, the single male northern white rhino, is guarded 24/7. Photo credit: Unknown

Rhino horns from the petri dish

In a paper published in 1992, Viney et al. observed: “With the chemical and molecular composition of the rhino horn identified, the possibility of producing a synthetic horn material was discussed. A low-cost, chemically equivalent substitute used instead of natural horn for medicinal purposes, might help alleviate the pressure on the rhino population due to poaching. We are investigating this possibility.”

To produce artificial rhino horn, Pembient will engineer yeast cells to produce the same keratins found in the horn. It will amalgamate these keratins with other natural components of rhino horn, including trace elements and rhino DNA, and use the resulting material as an ink in a 3D printing process. The end result, Markus stated, is a horn that has the same physical, genetic, and spectrographic properties as wild horn.

“We’ve made a prototype rhino horn powder using the keratin found in sheep’s wool,” Markus stated in the email. “We’ve also created several miniature horns, or “hornlets”, from this powder. We’re now working to improve these prototypes. Our immediate goal is to replace the wool keratins we use with rhino keratins produced in yeast.” The company hopes to ship solid horn samples to potential customers within the next 12 to 18 months.

Fake vs. Real

Experts believe that feeding the demand will compound, not solve, the problem. Cathy Dean, director of Save the Rhino, stated in an email interview that selling synthetic rhino 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 fuels demand for “the real thing,” a sentiment echoed by other rhino conservation leaders.

“Is there a danger of these new consumers aspiring to upgrade to the “real stuff” sometime in future when they can afford it, in the same way some car lovers may start off with a Toyota Corolla with the hope of upscaling to a more expensive Audi when finances allow?” asked Dr. Richard Emslie, Scientific Officer, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) SSC African Rhino Specialist Group.

Synthetic horns could legitimize and give credence to the notion that rhino horn has medicinal value, which is not supported by science, Dean added. Users buy from trusted sources and value the real thing, she said. “Buying synthetic horn if you could afford the real thing would be like trying to convince [singer] Jennifer Lopez she’d really rather have cubic zirconia in her engagement ring,” Dean said. Amie Alden of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust concurred that people will always pay more for the ‘real thing’ and so fakes will do little to drive demand for the product. Ironically, more than 90 percent of rhino horns in circulation are fake, Dean added. What people believe to be rhino horns are mostly carved from buffalo horn or wood, yet poaching rates continue to rise.

Unlike real or fake animal fur, says Alden, which is purchased for its appearance, rhino horn is consumed for the (incorrectly praised) properties of the product — why would anyone buy a known fake?

Rhino with flamingos_web
The “real thing” — the pointy, curved horn of a southern white rhino in Kenya, looking tough compared to flamingos. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri

Markus, however, disagrees that synthetic rhino horns put a premium on the real ones. He gives the example of plantation teak and wild teak, where wild teak shows physical differences such as being darker because it is typically older. “A wild product will not command a premium over a non-wild product, unless there is some way to establish its provenance,” he stated. His goal is that there be no way for one to distinguish between the synthetic and real rhino horns.

Emslie brought forward a concern raised by a police colleague: if the company manages to produce realistic whole horns or artefacts, suspects apprehended with real horn would be able to claim that they believed what they were moving or selling was fake synthetic horn and not real horn.

The role(s) of technology in conservation

The role of this technology in rhino conservation is debatable, stated Dr. Michael H. Knight, chairman, IUCN SSC African Rhino Specialist Group. “It’s being advocated as a demand reduction strategy to make artificial horn available at a fraction (about $5/kg) of the current price to potentially reduce poaching pressure for real horn. This assumes that there is no market differentiation between real and synthetic horn….If the differentiation places a higher value on real horn, this may not reduce poaching pressure.”

Meanwhile, Dean stated, there are “some really useful bits of technology”— such as camera traps, RFID tags, thermal-imaging and night-vision equipment, CyberTracker, intelligence gathering and analysis applications and databases, and DNA analysis of rhino horns (RhODIS) — that have transformed rhino conservation efforts over the years, though all of these, she added, are only as good as the person operating them. Emslie agreed that the use of the RhoDIS DNA system and database is proving invaluable in investigations and in court to help secure convictions and to link poachers to particular poaching incidents.

Emslie also believes that security technology will play a major role in conservation of rhinos, highlighting the potential importance of bullet-proof vests that can withstand 375 ammunition, entrance detection equipment and smart fences, and especially advanced analysis of intelligence data to better determine syndicate structure and who in syndicates it would be best to deal with first to maximally disrupt poachers. Moreover, mentioned Alden, given the huge sums that might be involved in creating a product such as fake rhino horn, the same investment could fund a number of anti-poaching teams that would likely make a bigger difference on the ground.

The future of rhinos

Markus stated that “a lot” of research and development has gone into finding the acceptance level of synthetic horns and that a synthetic horn is the ultimate cutting agent. “Typically, a cutting agent is easy to spot or, if it is not, it is of equal value to the product being cut….You put in a little legal product and then move a whole bunch of illegal product. What happens when traffickers can put in a more attainable, undetectable cutting agent? They’ll start to use more and more of it. The dynamics should then flip, with a lot of cutting agent being used to move a little illegal product. Eventually, the incentive for traffickers to run an expensive, illegal supply chain will completely disappear since they can simply pass off cultured horn as wild horn.”

However, experts don’t think it’s as easy as this.

According to Knight, the promotion of synthetic rhino horns runs contrary to the strategy of lowering demand for wildlife resources. In a paper about ivory trade, Elizabeth Bennett (2014) suggested that strict controls on the markets for wildlife products are the only way to prevent poaching of elephants for their ivory. Bennett argues that the only way to increase elephant population is to “close all markets” for at least 10 years until poaching no longer threatens populations in the wild. Is this a strategy that should be used to help conserve rhinos?

rhino & baby_Chitwan_web
Asian one-horned rhino and young ignore the photographer. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri

There is evidence to support it. Within a year of the 2008 sale to China of 60-plus tons of ivory, elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade rose to historically high levels, and many agree that no amount of legal trade can satisfy the worldwide demand for ivory. Similarly, the demand for wild tiger parts has seen an increase in spite of China’s legal tiger farms.

Markus stated that if the moratorium on international trade in wild rhino horn remains in place and NGOs adopt demand reduction campaigns aimed at diminishing the value of wild products (e.g., highlighting the danger of ingesting arsenic via preserved horns), synthetic rhino horns will curtail poaching of rhinos in South Africa. He added that Pembient would direct a portion of its revenue toward anti-poverty and anti-poaching programs in rhino range states, a claim questioned by IUCN experts.

Knight stated that producing and marketing fake rhino horn is unlikely to help conserve rhinos in the range states, as most of the revenue would presumably go to the American company. Emslie added that even if some of the profits were given to conservation, their allocation would be selective and probably with strings attached, based on the preferences of the company.

Both Emslie and Knight identified several major obstacles to protecting rhinos. First is how to provide direct incentives to existing owners, custodians and communities to continue to conserve rhinos in situ. Currently, says Emslie, “in the major range state South Africa, [private game ranch] owners [are] getting rid of the rhinos because of significantly increased costs and risks associated with the poaching upsurge since 2008 and declining economic incentives for conserving rhinos.” Second is how to improve livelihood opportunities for poor rural communities that are the source of many of the poachers. Emslie remains unconvinced that the distribution of fake rhino horn will benefit owners, managers and communities directly, as presumably most of any profits will go to the company. A third challenge is the involvement of transnational organized crime: well-resourced criminal syndicates have a vested interest in maintaining the lucrative illegal rhino horn trade and eliminating threats to their profits. Alden strongly believes that a combination of a trade ban, stiffer penalties and increased investment on the ground together are the only long-term means to protect elephants and rhinos from the poaching crisis. Finally, Emslie stated, is the continued appearance of new uses of rhino horn, such as carvings to make bangles and bowls.

A number of NGOS have now made statements on the issue, but the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group has not yet done so. “We plan to discuss it at our biennial meeting in February 2016,” Knight added. This initiative is a controversial one, he added, and the jury is still very much out on its ethics and effectiveness.

Join the debate. Synthetic rhino horns – a slippery slope or the next wave of conservation?

Citations:

Bennett, L. Elizabeth (2014), Legal Ivory Trade in a Corrupt World and its Impact on African Elephant Populations. Conservation Biology. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12377.

Hieronymus, T.L., Witmer, L. M. and Ridgely, R. C. (2006) Structure of white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) horn investigated by X-ray computed tomography and histology with implications for growth and external form; Journal Of Morphology 267:1172–1176.

Ripple, W. J., Newsome, T. M., Wolf, C., Dirzo, R., Everatt, K. T., Galetti, M., Hayward, M. W., Kerley, G. I. H., Levi, T., Lindsey, P. A., Macdonald, D. W., Malhi, Y., Painter, L. E., Sandom, C. J., Terborgh, J. and Van Valkenburgh, B. (2015) Collapse of the world’s largest herbivores; Sci. Adv. 1:e 1400103.

Viney, C., Case, S.T. and Waite, J. H. (1992) Structure and Composition of Rhinoceros Horn; Biomolecular Materials; Materials Research Society Symposium Proceedings Volume 292; Symposium held December 1-3, 1992, Boston, Massachusetts; Materials Research Society.

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