Synthetic rhino horn: why it won’t save the rhino

We are in the midst of the planet’s sixth mass extinction, with species being lost at a thousand times the natural rate, driven by human actions – not least of which is the illegal wildlife trade.

Rhinos have been particularly hard hit and the danger of extinction from illegal trade is very real…

  • In 2010 the western black rhino was officially declared extinct, with the primary cause identified as poaching.
  • The Sumatran rhino has been on earth longer than any living mammal: and yet, with fewer than 100 individuals remaining, this species was declared extinct in the wild in Malaysia earlier this year.
  • With populations also decimated by poaching for illegal trade, there are now only three northern white rhino left on earth.
  • Despite the fact that rhino poaching in South Africa has slowed over the last year (1,175 animals were poached in 2015 compared with 1,215 in 2014), this still means that one rhino was being killed every seven hours. At this rate the country with the majority of rhinos will have lost them all within a decade.

In short, the future of all five species of rhino is looking particularly bleak.

Group of white rhinos. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Group of white rhinos. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Driven by demand

The recent and catastrophic resurgence in the trade of rhino horn is being driven by rapid growth in demand, particularly from Vietnam.

One of the most populous countries in the world, Vietnam is undergoing rapid economic growth, with unprecedented levels of disposable income fuelling a boom in the market for luxury goods. Demand for rhino horn has emerged as part of this trend.

Rhino horn has been used in Vietnamese and Chinese traditional medicine for over 2,000 years. Traditional texts suggest that it is used to treat fever, vomiting, food poisoning and headaches.

Nevertheless, research has shown that demand is no longer primarily for medicinal use, but rather to demonstrate social status. Rare and high value products from powerful wild animals such as rhinos are very symbolic and effective at demonstrating power, wealth and social status.

Reports in the media suggest rhino horn is retailing in Vietnam at US$50,000 to US$65,000 per kg – higher than the price of gold.

Among the main consumers are affluent men who mix ground rhino horn with water or alcohol as a general or hangover-curing tonic. Rather than being purely medicinal, consumption is closely tied with high-status business transactions, and is used to strengthen one’s social networks.

Wealthy mothers, meanwhile, are using rhino horn to try and reduce fever in children, and it is now also being marketed effectively to the terminally ill.

Pair of white rhinos. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Pair of white rhinos. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Can synthetic rhino horn save the day?

One suggested way of tackling this crisis has been to manufacture and market synthetic rhino horn. But will this prevent rhinos being poached?

Sadly, I do not think so.

Crucially, synthetic rhino horn does not have the same symbolic or medicinal value as the genuine article. Access to products from rare wild animals is very effective at demonstrating status, wealth and power over people and resources, whereas access to a synthetic ‘substitute’ is not.

Likewise, medicines from wild animals that must fight for survival and eat a natural diet are considered safer and much more effective in restoring and maintaining vital energy or chi – and, in turn, good health.

In a world where wild products are valued primarily for their rarity and expense, and where genuine wildlife products (and those who consume them) are considered superior, farmed or synthetic alternatives are highly unlikely to satisfy the demand for wild species.

Consumers want the real thing, and buy from trusted sources to ensure they get it.

Nevertheless, availability of an inferior but more accessible synthetic ‘substitute’ is likely to appeal to a new and larger market that cannot currently access the real thing.

As has been observed in the market for bear bile following the introduction of bear bile farms, this may later amplify overall demand for wild-caught products – the availability of farmed or synthetic alternatives having led to their being seen as essential.

White rhinos grazing. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

White rhinos grazing. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Undermining conservation efforts

Flooding the market with synthetic rhino horn contributes little to demand reduction efforts. It will make the job of law enforcement agencies more difficult as they try to distinguish between real, fake and synthetic rhino horn. It is also likely to remove any existing stigma attached to buying an illegally-traded product.

Consumer research conducted by companies suggests that it could be commercially viable to sell synthetic rhino horn, but this research has not sought to assess whether synthetic horn would be accepted as a real substitute for genuine rhino horn and thus aid conservation efforts.

Obscurity around how the products will be marketed and which audiences will be targeted cast further doubt over companies’ motivations – do they harbour true ambitions to reduce poaching, or do they wish to profit from latent demand amongst consumers who do not currently contribute to the demand for rhino horn.

So what can be done?

There is no single silver bullet. To prevent further rhino extinctions, the global community needs to work together using a variety of approaches.

With consumers prepared to pay the rising costs of finding every last individual, we must support local communities, private owners and custodians and governments to protect remaining rhino populations, and work to disrupt trade networks.

In the longer term, we need to reduce demand for rhino horn through effective demand reduction strategies informed by experts in fields such as social marketing and conservation psychology.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is committed to tackling illegal wildlife trade and is playing a crucial role in this global effort.