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 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.