Will Cell-Based Horns Save Rhinos From Poaching?

July 9, 2019

In 2017, 1,124 rhinos were poached in Africa. 1,028 of them were killed in South Africa. Though poaching rates have decreased since 2015, the fight to protect rhinos is far from over. Just recently, a heartbreaking video was released showing a baby rhino trying to wake its mother that had been killed by poachers. Clearly, there is still a lot we need to do to.

One rather unexpected strategy to discourage poachers from killing rhinos is to dehorn the animals. The belief behind this is simple: no horn means no incentive to kill the rhino. Rhino dehorning has actually been practiced since 1989 in Namibia, in Damaraland, and parts of Etosha National Park. The tactic has now spread to other African nations. The process of dehorning a rhino consists of capturing and sedating the animal, covering the rhino’s eyes and nose, marking the cutting line with a felt pen about 7 cm above the horn base and cutting the horn off with a chainsaw. The stump is smoothed with a coarse rasp and Stockholm tar is applied to prevent infections.

Just like our fingernails, rhino horns are made up of keratin, so they grow back after a few months. Dehorning rhinos over and over again is a costly, tiresome process and hence not the final solution. 

But what if we could grow rhino horns without the animals? A growing field called cellular agriculture is doing exactly that: take a biopsy from a rhino horn (i.e. a few cells from the horn via a process that doesn’t hurt the animal) and then grow the cells in a vessel that contains all the nutrients these cells need to thrive. If placed in a horn-shaped scaffold, these cells multiply and grow into a horn.

Proponents of cellular agriculture claim that it can help protect elephants that are killed for their tusks, and even cattle raised for leather or chickens raised for meat. Various companies are already making these so-called “cell-based” products, such as cell-based beef, cell-based chicken or cell-based egg. Though neither cell-based horns nor cell-based meat are available to the public yet, they will soon hit the market shelves. In the case of rhino horns, a company called Pembient is working on them.

Nevertheless, no new technology comes without fears. If buyers know that they are buying cell-based rhino horns rather than horns cut off from animals, we don’t have the guarantee that they will be satisfied.

Additionally, traffickers of wild animal products might insist that their horns are legally obtained cell-based horns when in fact they are from poached animals. We would need laws that enforce the trade of solely cell-based horns, a way to track back the origin of the horns being sold and consumer education so that buyers see the value and are content with cell-based horns.

But the real difficulty is this: rhino horn consumers are already not rational. They are buying the horns for their purported medicinal properties, a myth that numerous studies have proven to be exactly that: a myth only. So rationalizing that cell-based horns will serve them just as well as animal-shorn horns is unlikely to be accepted by these consumers. 

Production of cell-based horn is still operating under the incorrect and damaging paradigm that horns are valuable to anyone else other than the rhinos themselves. There are more fundamentally corrective ways that we can discourage poaching to protect wild animals. From an early age on, children should be taught to value and protect the beings that share the planet with us. Poaching should be seen as a taboo. But the lack of a sustainable economy in the region can force people to take up poaching, regardless of cultural understanding. In that case, an alternative to poaching that combines education, employment, and protection of species could be ecotourism.  In the Philippines, for example, fishermen that once illegally killed whale sharks now take people on dives with these animals. Ecotourism might still imply a level of human interaction, but allowing both humans and animals to coexist is vastly preferable to the decimation of beloved species.

There probably isn’t one perfect solution to wildlife protection. Even though in recent years much more attention has been paid to wildlife conservation, we will likely still lose many species before the conservation light bulb goes on for everyone. Nonetheless, hope still exists. The possible solutions given above are just a few examples of how we can all get involved in the field of wildlife conservation. Many people may have more fabulous ideas to revolutionize wildlife protection. It may be a new technology or a new governmental regulation, a documentary series or a course taught at a university. Whatever it is, don’t forget to share your ideas or projects with others, so that more people can join the revolution to protect those beings that share this planet with us.



Photo: Geran de Klerk

Tatiana, a global citizen, studied molecular biology at the University of California, San Diego (B.S.) and environmental engineering and science at Stanford University (M.S.). After two internships in food technology in Germany and Chile, Tatiana moved to Christchurch, New Zealand, where she now works as an assistant manager at a small vegan eco-hotel and at an ecological consultancy.


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