The world’s five species of rhinoceros are rushing pell-mell towards extinction. The most reliable statistics come from South Africa, and they reflect the rate at which rhinos are being poached across the world. In 2007, South Africa lost 13 rhinos to poachers. Last year the total was 1,215, and in the first four months of this year 393 rhinos were poached. They’re being killed on an industrial scale because it’s believed by some that the bodger on their bonce has medicinal properties. But now there’s a theory that we can rescue the rhino by putting synthetic horn on the market. It’s an enticing idea, but one yet to find universal acceptance. Some say it will solve the problem in a flash, others that it will make things a good deal worse.
The fact is that it would be hard to make things worse. The demand for rhino horn is accelerating at a breathtaking rate. It has for centuries been a part of traditional Chinese medicine, where it’s used for disorders of the blood. (The idea that it’s an aphrodisiac is a Western myth.) The staggering acceleration in recent years has come from a surge of prosperity in Vietnam, where rhino horn has become a prestige item among the newly wealthy. It’s sold as a cure for cancer and hangovers: the effects of a night of expensive over-indulgence can be mitigated with an even more expensive remedy. The whole process shows what kind of a man you are.
An American company called Rhinoceros Horn LLC wants to market an ethically sourced keratin product that it says is biologically identical to powdered rhino horn. It is sustainable, and produced without harming any animals. Meanwhile, Pembient—which describes itself as “the De Beers of synthetic wildlife products”—is aiming to develop solid horn, in a version “genetically similar” to the genuine article. Another organisation, Stop Poaching Through Synthetic Rhino Horn, wants to culture rhino horn from rhino DNA, using 3D printing to create a synthetic product. It’s being suggested that the introduction of synthetic rhino horn as a legal alternative will stop people looking for the real thing.
All these companies recognise that there is negligible medical value in rhino horn, so the ethics of selling a synthetic version as medicine are somewhat tangled. There is a further problem. As much as 90% of rhino horn being sold illegally is fake. It’s accepted by TRAFFIC, an international NGO that specialises in the illegal wildlife trade, that the amount of fake horn being sold encourages the richest customers to buy real horn from trusted individuals. Conservationists worry that the synthetics business will have the same effect. People don’t want a medicine made from keratin powder, they want something that came from a dead rhino. You may not be able to tell a genuine Raphael from a painting from the school of Raphael, but if you can establish provenance, one is incomparably more valuable than the other. If you like, it’s the same kind of magic: the magic of the hand of the named dead master is worth many times more than the identical thing touched only by his anonymous understrappers.
Two NGOs, International Rhino Foundation and Save the Rhino International, have come out against the trade in synthetics. They are concerned that such products will reinforce the powerful mythologies that drive the illegal rhino-horn trade and will only increase demand. They also suggest that marketing a synthetic product will strengthen the belief that rhino horn has a genuine medicinal value, and that’s both incorrect and unethical. They believe that legal synthetic products could make it easier to sell genuine horn while removing some of the stigma of illegality.
The existence of synthetic horn would also confuse things for law enforcement. The NGOs note that the companies in question show little commitment to using profits to help stop rhino poaching. The question of synthetic rhino horn is a distraction from the real issue: the continuing, escalating, unsustainable and illegal killing of rhinos. In “Peter Pan”, the fairy Tinkerbell is saved from death because people believe in fairies. It’s possible that five species of rhino will be wiped out because of a similar superstition.