Will Bioengineered Rhino Horns Save the Species or Kill It Off?

Two conservation groups want the U.S. government to ban the sale of synthetic horns.
(Photo: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)
Feb 11, 2016· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

A conservation-minded start-up wants to save endangered rhinoceroses by growing rhino horns in the lab. Now some environmental groups contend that the synthetic version not only is illegal but will increase demand for real rhino horns.

On Wednesday, the Center for Biological Diversity and a conservation group called WildAid filed a petition asking the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to “ban the import, export, and sale of ‘cultured’ rhinoceros horn.”

One of the companies to develop synthetic rhino horns is a Seattle-based start-up called Pembient.

Rhino horn sells for upwards of $65,000 per kilogram, according to Matthew Markus, chief executive of Pembient, which is seeking to “biofabricate” horns at a fraction of that price. The idea: Flooding the market with fake rhino horns will drive down the price for the real thing, reducing the financial incentive for poachers to kill the animals.

Markus said he hoped the synthetic horn would provide an outlet for consumers in the same way faux fur has in the past.

Rhino horns, most of which come from poached animals in South Africa, are popular in China and Vietnam, where the horn is consumed in powder form in the belief that it can treat everything from hangovers to cancer. Intact horns are also carved into decorative items such as jewelry.

The number of rhinos killed by poachers in South Africa jumped from 262 in 2008 to 1,215 in 2014, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act, the commercial import, export, and interstate commerce of any products derived from rhinos is unlawful.

“Pembient’s cultured rhino horn is a ‘product’ of ESA-listed…rhinoceros,” the petition reads. “To produce its cultured horn, Pembient will insert the rhinoceros gene sequence that codes for rhino keratin into yeast, which then multiplies.”

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“Accordingly, because Pembient’s synthetic rhino horn both is ‘produced from’ the rhinoceros genetic code and includes rhinoceros genetic material, and because the ESA prohibits the import, export, or sale of ‘any . . . product’ from an endangered animal, trade in cultured rhino horn is prohibited,” it reads.

Markus takes issue with that assertion.

“It all depends on the word ‘derived,’ ” he said in an email. “The spirit of the Act pertains to items taken from living animals killed for the commercial use of their tissues. We’re not killing animals. Now, does ‘derived’ extend to information about those animals as encoded in their DNA? Maybe.”

“We feel that extending the ESA to us is a gross abuse,” he added.

The environmental groups raised other concerns as well.

“By promoting medicinal products that contain horn, Pembient and other companies…are undermining years of work by WildAid and others to educate consumers that rhino horn does not [have] proven medicinal value,” they write in the petition. “Similarly, by promoting rhino horn luxury products like carvings and jewelry, Pembient thwarts efforts to stigmatize the use of rhino horn.”

Because the synthetic product will be sold for one-eighth the price of genuine horn, it will be “accessible to a broader and less affluent pool of consumers, introducing an entirely new consumer base to rhino horn products.”

Markus refuted those claims.

“Simply put, if some biofabricated horns can be passed off as wild horns, then consumers won’t be able to reliably determine any horn’s real value, and the price of rhino horn will fall,” he said.

Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, countered, “An economic theory, indeed, is just that. Theories exist in a vacuum. But when you look at what these products can do in reality, it’s very concerning.”

While a FWS spokesperson declined to comment on the petition, Edward Grace, the agency’s deputy assistant director of law enforcement, echoed the environmentalists’ concerns.

“Experience demonstrates that efforts to ‘flood the market’ for products produced from protected wildlife…often fail to achieve their stated goal,” Grace said in an email. “Such efforts often create more demand from consumers.”

He said the agency also worries that synthetic products “would make it harder for law enforcement to detect poached and trafficked wildlife products, or allow criminals to disguise the source of illegal products by commingling them with these alternatives.”

Markus, who said production of synthetic horns will proceed, questioned the environmental groups’ approach to the issue.

“We’ve asked them to debate, and now they want to use the full force of the government against us,” he said. “But all they’ve said is ‘We want to ban you.’ It’s frustrating.”