All species of rhinos are disappearing worldwide, possibly they could all be gone by 2020. There have been discussions recently about a new strategy to attempt curbing poaching with flooding the market with a new synthetic horn equivalent engineered by the bioengineering company, Pembient. But would it really help kill the illegal trade?

SouthAfricaRhinoPoaching2015According to Save The Rhino over 3000 rhinos have been poached since 2013, a massive escalation from the triple figures seen between 2009 and 2012 to quadruple figures. Efforts of bans, increased anti-poaching protection, education in Asian countries where demand is highest and the controversially viewed ‘auction a rhino trophy hunt to bring in conservation funds’ have done little to curb the demand and the killing. 363 deaths so far have been reported for 2016 [1]. At current rates of hunting and poaching, rhinos may well be extinct by 2020 –just 4 years from now…

Can Flooding the Markets with Fake Rhino Horn Stop Poaching?

White Rhinos with horn (source:

Photo source:

A bioengineering company (Pembient) announced their strategy in June 2015 to the media –flood the markets with synthetic rhino horn indistinguishable from the real thing and undercut the prices [2,3]. In theory this could be great news however conservationists have grave reservations about the approach and are critical that it will solve anything.

At the time of announcement, Pembient was looking to partner with a Chinese company to sell beer with synthetic powdered horn and market a face cream in Vietnam also containing powder and even went so far as to have produced a video advert in Vietnamese. In watching the YOUTube interviews available [a,b], to us, their focus and reasoning seem to be primarily on the luxury market and they openly talk about their dual mandate. Primarily to make a profit and secondly to minimise poaching.

The Arguments

In fact Save the Rhino International (SRI) and the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) have been watching the progress of 4 US companies who want to pursue this approach. They have commented on the following:

  • Increasing the supply may well increase the demand. And increasing the supply by using synthetic rhino horn in products where e.g. buffalo horn is currently used may be even more dangerous.
  • “The production of this synthetic horn reinforces this idea that it has some medicinal value when there isn’t any evidence to support it” –Susie Ellis, IRF executive director.
  • It is counter-intuitive to the educational work being undertaken especially in Vietnam to de-bust those myths and stigmatises the demand.
  • And then from a criminal activity perspective –if synthetic rhino horn is indistinguishable from the real thing, how then can you prove a valid arrest?

Furthermore, it’s been reported that 90%…yes that is 90%! of rhino horn in circulation now is fake. Yet despite that, rhinos are still being hunted for even the smallest finger-nail’s worth of horn for ‘medicinal’ purposes and as status symbols.

SB Rhino1

Rhino Conservation at Imire

There has been an ongoing debate since rhino poaching exponentially increased that flooding the black market with stockpiles of seized horn and products will reduce demand and therefore reduce poaching [4]. The debate still goes on and stockpiles have not been released due to the above reasons. A further strategy to farm rhino horn to bring in an ongoing supply equally has been rejected – increased demand, supporting the myth of the horn being e.g a cure for cancer, feeding/ validating the demand as a status symbol. In fact, the only thing Pembient’ strategy would address would be that production of synthetic horn would be faster than the 2 years it would take for the rhino to regrow a reasonable amount of horn and therefore they can keep up with demand in a billion dollar black market industry [13].

SRI and IRF published an in-depth statement, which is well worth reading [5], raising their concerns and questions at the time of Pembient’s media release including –will any money from synthetic horn go towards conservation?– and of course the ultimate –will poaching stop with the introduction and sale of bio-engineered horn? Other animal protection and conservation organisations have similar criticisms and are in opposition.

”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.

Further concerns were added to their statement in February 2016:

  • 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) [9,10], 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?

A Cultural Issue?

SB Rhino3

Rhino Conservation at Imire

Look, we’d love for the strategy to be workable and for there to be a direct correlation between sale of a bio-engineered animal product and a reduction in poaching / hunting / animal cruelty. However so far there really is no evidence. Let’s take the case of bear bile farming mentioned within the statement above. And we use this example as countries where demand is highest for bear bile is also highest for rhino horn (China and Vietnam).

Herbal alternatives have been proved to be as efficacious [7,8] and yet bear bile farming continues. And actually, with bear bile farming there has been an interesting cultural insight to farmed bile vs. wild bear bile and even a farmed pharmaceutical herb versus a wild one [9,10]. China initiated the farms as an attempt to halt the reduction in wild bear hunting but illegal hunting still continues.

An added dimension to bear bile continues with announcements in 2014 and 2015 that synthetic bear bile was being formulated and introduced. What will the alternative synthesised from? Poultry bile [11]. So in fact despite more than reasonable herbal alternatives being in circulation for at least a decade, the demand for the animal product is still in existence.

And culturally, within demand countries for bear bile and rhino horn there is this duality between refusing animal sentience and a growing animal rights activism.

Tsinghua University professor Zhao Nanyuan argues that animal rights represent a form of Western imperialism (“foreign trash”) that is “anti-humanity”. He argues that animals are not sentient and therefore don’t have rights. He encourages China to learn from the example of South Koreans who refused Western protests of its dog-meat traditions [12].

“One main reason why I have, all along, participated in the work of protecting endangered animals is to make the public understand that the majority of Chinese medicine made from endangered medicine is not indispensable. We can easily replace them with herbal medicines, which are cheaper and easier to find. If the Chinese medicine community ceases to use endangered animals as medicine, it can not only join in helping to save endangered species from extinction but can also raise the international reputation of Chinese medicine to that of a sophisticated branch of medicine.” Dr. Lo Yan Wo Chinese Association of Medicine and Philosophy, Hong Kong [7].

Where and Why has Demand Reduction Worked?

Looking at evidence where demand for rhino horn has fallen or even been eradicated, the common denominator has been education alongside government support, namely their Ministries of Health and Environmental Protection Agencies. Japan, South Korea, Yemen and Taiwan all are no longer a problem due to their strategies. China and Vietnam still remain the biggest threat to the future of rhinos. The shift of demand from purely pharmaceutical to status symbol (carvings, drinking, snorting the powder), may have a big part in the reason why, as well as the cultural need for wild versus farmed; for real animal product versus herbal. If something is perceived to be more expensive, and more dangerously sourced, and more exotic, then a synthetic alternative will never work.

(Pembient has delayed their launch from 2015 to a planned launch in 2016 in the face of overwhelming criticism and questions and apparently are re-focusing on the luxury carvings market.)

References and Further Reading


[a] Pembient’s Matthew Markus Creates Synthetic Rhino Horns to Stop Illegal $750m Trade & Endangerment

[b] Pembient Rhino Horn 3D Printing


[1] South African Government Rhino Poaching Statistics

[2] Can Fake Rhino Horn Stop the Poaching of an Endangered Species? By Jani Actman, National Geographic (2015) Opting for carvables instead of powder, a U.S. biotech startup forges ahead with controversial plans to sell fake rhino horn.

[3] Will Fake Rhino Horns Curb Poaching? By Tia Ghose, Live Science (2015)

[4] Why Legalizing Trade in Horn will Hasten the Demise of RhinosBy Dex Kotze, Africa Geographic (2014)

[5] Synthetic / Bio-fabricated Rhino Horn: Will it Save the Rhino? by Int’l Rhino Foundation & Save the Rhino Int’l Joint Statement by the International Rhino Foundation and Save the Rhino International (July 2015)

[6] Rhinos Face Extinction by 2020, Wildlife Experts WarnBy Amel Ahmed, Al Jazeera (2014)

[7] Finding Herbal Alternatives to Bear BileBy WSPA (2005)

[8] Substitutes for Bear Bile for the Treatment of Liver Diseases: Research Progress and Future Perspective. By Sha Li & al. (2016)

[9] A Stated Preference Investigation into the Chinese Demand for Farmed vs. Wild Bear BileBy Adam J. Dutton & al., in PLoS ONE (2011)

[10] Producing and Marketing Wild Simulated Ginseng in Forest and Agroforestry Systems. By Hankins, A. In Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication 354–312, Virginia State University (2009)

[11] Is the End of ‘House of Horror’ Bear Bile Factories in Sight? By Jeremy Hance (2015) After decades of activism against bear bile farms, a Chinese pharmaceutical company has announced it is developing a synthetic alternative.

[12] Animal Welfare and Rights in ChinaBy ESDAW (2015)

[13] Rhino DehorningBy Imire (2015)

Light Sharan with big iconby Sharan Bahra

The photos with the exception of the graphic and the accredited picture of the white rhinos are the property of the author. 

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