A coalition of 10 NGOs warns that the development and distribution of a synthetic alternative to real rhino horn runs the very real risk of only exacerbating the rhino crisis by removing the stigma of rhino horn consumption and creating unnecessary obstacles for law enforcement. Photo by Demetrius John Kessy via Wikimedia Commons.

A coalition of 10 wildlife NGOs warns against a biotech company’s plan to sell lab-grown rhino horns. Photo by Demetrius John Kessy via Wikimedia Commons.

HANOI – A coalition of wildlife non-governmental organisations actively combating the illegal rhino horn trade has declared its opposition to the use of bioengineered rhino horn as a measure to curb poaching.

Selling synthetic rhino horn risks removing the stigma of rhino horn consumption and creating unnecessary obstacles for law enforcement.

Selling synthetic rhino horn risks removing the stigma of rhino horn consumption and creating unnecessary obstacles for law enforcement.

The coalition, which includes Education for Nature-Vietnam, Annamiticus, WildAid, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Born Free Foundation, Environmental Investigation Agency, Outraged South African Citizens Against Poaching, WildlifeRisk-Hong Kong, African Wildlife Foundation and Wildlife Protection Society of India, warns that the development and distribution of a synthetic alternative to real rhino horn runs the very real risk of only exacerbating the rhino crisis by removing the stigma of rhino horn consumption and creating unnecessary obstacles for law enforcement.

At issue is an American biotech company, Pembient, established in January 2015 with the goal of replacing “the illegal wildlife trade, a $20 billion black market with sustainable commerce”. The wildlife trade coalition recommends that, under the U.S. Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act of 1998, Section § 5305a (a), Pembient cease all activities related to promotion, advertisement, development, production and export of its lab-grown “rhino horn” and urges the United States to suspend any rhinoceros product-related patent or trademark applications put forth by Pembient.

Pembient claims it has biofabricated a product which “include(s) genetic components of a rhino itself”. According to the company, “a short gene of rhino keratin is inserted into either yeast or bacteria” to replicate the rhino keratin which is used in its product. Pembient says it will “incorporate rhino DNA” into its manufactured horns. The company plans to create “an unlimited supply of horns at one-eighth of the current market price” and hopes to make it extremely expensive to test for differences between its product and real rhino horn.

Pembient is already attempting to capitalize on Vietnam’s demand for rhino horn with the production of a video advertisement for “essence of rhino horn” consumer goods. In China, Pembient is partnering with a Beijing brewery to produce a rhino horn beer.

The death toll of rhinos in South Africa alone has escalated from 13 rhinos in 2007 to a staggering 1,215 in 2014, and since the beginning of 2015, at least 749 rhinos have been killed in South Africa. Between 2010 and 2014 inclusive, a minimum of 107 rhinos were gunned down in India by poachers, where 13 have been killed already this year. The two countries have the largest rhino populations in Africa and Asia, with an estimated 20,000 (combined total of black and white rhinos) in South Africa and approximately 2,900 greater one-horned rhinos in India.

The killings are driven by demand for rhino horn from Vietnam and China. Rhino horn is consumed in Vietnam in a powdered form as a cure-all for everything, from hangovers to cancer. Whole horns are sought after as status symbols among Vietnam’s nouveau riche.

Besides its use in traditional Chinese medicine, researchers report that wealthy Chinese tourists are buying “newly introduced rhino horn artifacts and jewelry” in Vietnam, where they are taken to workshops to watch the process, to ensure it is the “real thing”.

Indeed, a comprehensive study undertaken by TRAFFIC revealed that 90% of the “rhino horn” for sale in Vietnam is actually water buffalo or cow horn. The widespread availability of “fakes” has not dampened demand and in fact, has served to increase the desirability of real horn from wild rhinos.

“Introducing rhino horn from alternative ‘legal’ sources into an unpredictable market could stimulate further demand, provide a loophole into which poached rhino horn can be introduced into the market, and create huge challenges for enforcement authorities, putting the world’s remaining rhinos under even more pressure,” warns Adam Roberts, CEO, Born Free Foundation and Born Free USA.

“Rhinos must be protected, and robust demand reduction programmes implemented to educate consumers not to buy rhino horn from any source,” advises Roberts.

The Director of Outraged South African Citizens Against Poaching, Allison Thomson, vehemently disapproves of Pembient’s plan. ”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.”

Pembient’s goal of making its product indistinguishable from real rhino horn is sharply criticized from a law enforcement perspective, as the availability of a “legal” lookalike substitute product that is genetically indistinguishable from the real thing would provide the ideal cover and defense for rhino horn traffickers and needlessly burden already over-taxed law enforcement authorities.

“Pembient is completely out of touch with the realities of wildlife trafficking.”

“Pembient is completely out of touch with the realities of wildlife trafficking, and has not once considered how harmful its product will be to law enforcement efforts on the front lines in Africa and Asia,” says Rhishja Cota-Larson, founder of the environmental pressure group Annamiticus.

Pembient’s business plan is not welcomed by Hanoi-based Education for Nature-Vietnam (ENV).

“Pembient risks undermining all the progress already undertaken in Vietnam by giving credibility to scientifically unproven medicinal beliefs, compromising enforcement, and potentially stimulating demand, while failing to address a key issue: status-driven rhino horn users want real horn from wild rhinos,” explains Doug Hendrie, Wildlife Crime and Investigations Unit Advisor at ENV.

Hendrie adds, “Pembient is trying to capitalize on the blood of rhinos for money and their reckless behavior is as threatening as the poaching they claim to be addressing.”


For further inquiries, contact:

Doug Hendrie, Education for Nature-Vietnam, dhendrie [at] gmail.com

Rhishja Cota-Larson, Annamiticus, rhishja [at] annamiticus.com

by Adam Cruise, Courtesy of Conservation Action Trust

South Africa's lion ranchers are pushing to cash in - at the expense of wild lions. Photo by Martin Mecnarowski via Wikimedia Commons

South Africa’s lion ranchers are pushing to cash in – at the expense of wild lions. Photo by Martin Mecnarowski via Wikimedia Commons

South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs has released for public comment its first-ever Biodiversity Management Plan for lions, panthera leo.

The main purpose of the proposed plan is outlined in the government’s vision for the South African lion population. “Through the existence of stable, viable and ecologically functional populations of managed and wild lions, along with well-managed captive populations that have minimal negative conservation impacts, lions will provide key opportunities for biodiversity conservation, economic development, social benefits and improved management capacity.”

This counter-trend, says the Biodiversity Management Plan, is “because all lions in South Africa are within largely adequately fenced reserves with sufficient management budgets…” As a result, most of the threats faced by other African lions “are not relevant to lions here.”While African range lions have declined over the last several decades, especially in west and east Africa and in southern Africa, where they were extirpated from most of their range by the 1900s, South Africa’s lion populations have not only stabilized but are increasing – by 30 percent over the last three decades.

Although wild lion population numbers are dropping across the continent, the Department of Environmental Affairs recommends that lions in South Africa be downgraded on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species from the current classification of Vulnerable to extinction to a classification of Least Concern.

Dr. Pieter Kat a trustee with LionAid, a UK charity working globally to save lions, is critical of the management plan.

“This is clearly to facilitate trade, to the detriment of wild lions in South Africa.”

There are currently 2,300 wild lions in the various national parks and 800 “managed wild” lions in smaller reserves, according to the Biodiversity Management Plan.

The plan recommends the downlisting because there are about 1,600 mature individual lions in South Africa, and it maintains that when the population of mature wild lions tops 1,500 individuals, the IUCN’s Red List should change the status of the species.

But South Africa does not know how many wild lions there are, says Dr. Kat. The last lion survey was in Kruger National Park in 2005/2006, so that data is now almost 10 years old.

“You cannot use it in any management plan as it is well beyond the ‘sell by’ date,” he said.

The Biodiversity Management Plan notes that there are around 6,000 captive-bred lions throughout the country, bred “exclusively to generate money” and that the captive breeding and subsequent release for hunting of captive bred lions remains legal.

South Africa is the only country in the world that has three classifications for lions: wild, managed wild and captive bred.

“The management of these lions,” says the Department of Environmental Affairs, “is challenging, with high growth rates necessitating appropriate population regulation.”

Dr. Kat said, “It’s is a pure attempt at manipulation of statistics to justify a commercial end.”

Asian traders started taking an interest in South African lions in 2008, when the decline in tiger numbers became acute. In traditional Chinese medicine, tiger wine and cake, made using powdered bones, allegedly cures many ills including ulcers, cramp, rheumatism, stomach ache and malaria.

Lion bones are now filling the gap and, according to the Biodiversity Management Plan, there is a sharp increase in lion products sold in Vietnam, Laos and China.

The agency says 739 kilograms of lion bones were legally traded to Asia in 2012 as compared to just 55 kilograms the year before.

The Biodiversity Management Plan views a legal trade in lion bones as an economically viable activity and hopes to “promote sustainable legal trade in lions and lion products” using a regulated permit system.

The sale of lion products, especially lion bones, offers breeders a way of boosting their earnings. A breeder can get paid anywhere from US$5,000 to US$25,000 per lion shot, but can boost his earnings by selling a lion skeleton, worth between $1,000 and $2,000 to a Chinese dealer in Durban or Johannesburg.

The skeleton, once boiled down and bottled in Asia could reach a value exceeding US$20,000.

Dr. Kat maintains that “by stimulating an Asian market for lion products, increased demand will affect lions across the continent as they now have value for poachers.”

He points out that there is already significant evidence that lions are being poached for their skins and bones in Zimbabwe and Tanzania, and trophy hunting operators outside South Africa have already been approached to sell the lion bones.

He says it is a short step from there to middlemen arranging for communities to poach and sell lion bones.


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by Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)

Stuffed tigers for sale at the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone have been smuggled in from China and are marketed to Chinese tourists and gamblers. Photo via EIA

Stuffed tigers for sale at the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone have been smuggled in from China and are marketed to Chinese tourists and gamblers. Photo via EIA

A resort complex tucked away in Laos and marketed to Chinese gamblers and tourists is a hub for trade in illegal wildlife products and parts, a new report reveals.

In Sin City: Illegal Wildlife Trade in Laos’ Special Economic Zone, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) documents how the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GT SEZ) in Bokeo Province has effectively become a lawless playground.

The complex comprises a casino, hotel, shops, restaurants, a shooting range and massage parlours, and visitors can openly buy endangered species products including tigers, leopards, elephants, rhinos, pangolins, helmeted hornbills, snakes and bears – smuggled in from Asia and Africa.

Undercover investigators from EIA and its partner Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV) documented restaurants with endangered species on their menus, from ”sauté tiger meat” and bear paws to reptiles and pangolins; one business kept a live python and a bear cub in cages, both of which were available to eat on request.

And the complex has ambitious plans for the manufacture of tiger bone wine. EIA/ENV found four tigers at the GT SEZ in mid-2014 but by February 2015 the number had risen to 35; a senior keeper revealed the goal is to acquire a total of 50 females for breeding to increase the population to 500 tigers within three years and to 1,000 in the long term to produce tiger bone wine for consumption at the GT SEZ and for export to China, via Yunnan.

The GT SEZ is run by the Chinese company Kings Romans Group, which has a 99-year lease and an 80 per cent stake in the operation. The Government of Laos has a 20 per cent stake in the GT SEZ, declaring it a duty-free area and giving it political patronage at the highest level.

Despite being situated in Laos, the GT SEZ functions more as an extension of China – it runs on Beijing time, signs are in Mandarin, most workers are Chinese nationals and the Chinese yuan is the main currency. Chinese nationals are permitted to visit with just an identity card rather than a passport.

The complex is accessed via a purpose-built 30km road from the nearest Laos town of Houaxay and China City Construction Group, a Chinese state-owned company, has been commissioned to build an international airport, a proposal which has created conflict with local farmers over land rights.

While Laos’ wildlife law enforcement is notoriously weak, there is not even a pretense of enforcement in the GT SEZ.

Debbie Banks, EIA Head of Tigers Campaign, said: “The activities within the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone constitute an intolerable disregard for international law as it concerns the illegal wildlife trade and endangered species.

“The Government of China urgently needs to recognise the immense damage this place does to its international reputation and to take meaningful action to rein in a Chinese company which is, in effect, running amuck with impunity in a neighbouring country with weak governance.

“China also needs to understand and accept that its legal domestic trade in the skins of captive-bred tigers is doing nothing but driving consumer demand – whether that demand is thriving at home or, as in the case of the GT SEZ, conveniently shunted into a neighbouring country.”

The report calls for the Government of Laos to immediately establish a multi-agency task force to tackle illegal wildlife trade at the GT SEZ and across the country, and to seize all illegal wildlife products at the GT SEZ.

It further calls on the Government of China to investigate connections between Chinese businesses and traders operating at the GT SEZ and wildlife criminals operating between Laos, Myanmar and China, and to cooperate with international counterparts to disrupt criminal networks.

In addition, Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) should seek CITES trade suspensions until such time as the governments of Laos and China demonstrate that adequate law enforcement, criminal justice and policy measures are being applied towards ending illegal wildlife trade associated with operations at the GT SEZ.


Download Sin City: Illegal Wildlife Trade in Laos’ Special Economic Zone.

by Mic Smith, Mongabay.com

In South Africa, "Pseudo hunts still happen, but the syndicates are recruiting Czechs or Russians to bypass the ban on Vietnamese hunters." Photo by Hein Waschefort  via Wikimedia Commons

In South Africa, “Pseudo hunts still happen, but the syndicates are recruiting Czechs or Russians to bypass the ban on Vietnamese hunters.” Photo by Hein Waschefort via Wikimedia Commons

Two adult rhinos and a calf lie under a tree 50 meters off the road. It’s a nice sighting for me in the midday heat of Kruger National Park in South Africa — my second of rhinos in two days. On the eastern horizon behind their sleeping forms lies a dark blue line; the Lembobo Mountains mark the border between South Africa and Mozambique. Those deadly hills produce poaching teams from Mozambican villages quicker than Kruger’s rhino antipoaching teams can catch them. The teams are put together from queues of poor Mozambican men lining up for the rhino horn money that is flooding in from international syndicates based primarily in Vietnam and China. More poachers are probably mobilizing up there for incursions tonight. But the rhinos’ enemies come not only from the east. Just as many come from the South African townships on Kruger’s western border. SANParks, South Africa’s national parks agency, estimates that 15 rhino poaching teams operate in Kruger every night. It’s been a full moon so poaching activity has been hectic. The eyes of Lembobo watch.

Read the full article: Amid rhinoceros poaching frenzy, dark days for South African society


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Travelers of the Year Logo 2014

Melinda MacInnis, Director/Producer of The Price documentary, was honored in October 2014 with the prestigious National Geographic Traveler of the Year award.

Melinda explains in a National Geographic interview that “The power of ecotourism is a very real thing. It has the power to change lives, transform communities, and save wildlife all in a sustainable way. But you can’t just tell indigenous communities that ecotourism is good for them if it’s not. There has to be a real and lasting economic and social benefit for all parties involved.”

“I’ve learned that traveling to the source is the single greatest way of understanding something. If you want to be an authority on something, you need to go see the facts on the ground for yourself. It allows you to share in each other’s humanity, and it allows you to bear witness in a way you just can’t replicate.”

The filmmaker was also interviewed by Denver’s 5280.com.

“We didn’t just want to make a film showing the slaughter of rhinos. I didn’t want people just to cry. We want to inspire people to make changes. We want to show that this is a global issue; these changes don’t come from giving $25 to a nonprofit and then being done with it. The changes need to come at the international level. There’s a group called CITES—Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species—which acts as a forum for countries to come together and vote upon legally binding agreements regulating the trade in endangered plants and animals. Lack of enforcement is one of the big problems — each country is responsible for enforcing its own laws. There is no one international body that enforces environmental laws; it all must be based on the cooperation of each member country. Therefore it’s all so weak in reality. We, as global citizens, need to demand an adherence to these trade agreements.”

Listen to a podcast interview with Melinda on National Geographic weekend.


Melinda MacInnis named "Woman Warrior" by COCO ECO magazine.

Filmmaker Melinda MacInnis was named a “Woman Warrior” by COCO ECO magazine.

Congratulations to THE PRICE Writer, Director, Producer Melinda MacInnis! She has been named a “Woman Warrior” in the Spring/Summer issue of COCO ECO Magazine.

Read Melinda’s story on page 85.


More than three tons of pangolin scales from Africa were seized in Asia during the first six months of 2014. PHOTO: Tikki Hywood Trust

More than three tons of pangolin scales from Africa were seized in Asia during the first six months of 2014. PHOTO: Tikki Hywood Trust

During the first six months of 2014, at least 17 pangolin trafficking incidents were reported across six Asian countries: China (including Hong Kong), India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, and Thailand.

As of June 18, the volume of pangolin scales seized per incident ranged from two (2) to 2,340 kilograms (2.6 tons). A total of 23 suspects were arrested, including two women. Cars, pickup trucks, motorbikes, mail, and maritime freight containers were used to transport the bodies and scales of thousands of pangolins. A particularly worrying indicator is that two seizures of scales in Hong Kong — totaling just over three tons — apparently came from African pangolins.

In just 168 days, nearly four tons of pangolin scales and more than 1200 individual pangolins were confiscated from wildlife traffickers.

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"What passes for economics in wildlife trade literature avoids several serious conceptual and empirical questions, " says Dr. Alejandro Nadal.

“What passes for economics in wildlife trade literature avoids several serious conceptual and empirical questions, ” says Dr. Alejandro Nadal.

Supporters of South Africa’s push to legalize rhino horn trade are fond of saying that the position is one of economics — but expert scrutiny reveals that the “rhino-nomics” theory is simplistic, flawed, and based on naïve textbook concepts.

Speaking at the International Wildlife Trafficking Symposium in London, Dr. Alejandro Nadal — Professor at the Centre for Economic Studies of El Colegio de Mexico and Co-Chair of TEMTI-CEESP-IUCN — opened his presentation by stating that any debate on wildlife trade policy “needs to take into account the fact that markets do not behave in accordance to the simplified narrative of textbook economics”.

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Quote of the moment: “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for its destruction.” — Rachel Carson


41 Governments pledged to end wildlife trafficking at the historical London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade.

41 Governments pledged to end wildlife trafficking at the historical London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade.

Political leaders from 41 countries pledged their support in the fight against wildlife trafficking at last week’s historic London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade.

The last few years have seen a dramatic increase in global wildlife trafficking, now considered the fourth most lucrative form of transnational organized crime and totaling $19 billion annually. This grisly crisis reached the highest political levels in January 2014, prompting the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution sanctioning “individuals and entities” which use wildlife trafficking to support armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A separate sanctions regime targeting the link between illegal wildlife trade and regional instability was also adopted for the Central African Republic.

At the London Conference, a comprehensive Declaration “calling upon the international community to act together to bring [wildlife trafficking] to an end” was adopted by 41 countries (download it here).

The Declaration calls for a series of actions (underscored by a series of tangible action steps) to be taken in order to achieve that goal — for example, “eradicating the market for illegal wildlife products”.

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