- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2015

Could a human hankering for exotic elixirs, curatives and aphrodisiacs turn rhino horn into a $20 billion a year industry and take out an entire species of animals at the same time? Looks like it. A study from a team of international scientists says so - saying the call for rhino horn and other substances derived from animal parts has “drastic implications” for rhinoceroses, along with elephants, hippopotamuses and even gorillas.

“One of the critical factors behind the disturbing trend is the tremendous financial incentive for poachers to sell animal parts for consumer goods and food. For example, rhinoceros horn is more valuable by weight than gold, diamonds or cocaine,” says lead author William Ripple, an Oregon State University professor of ecology. The research appeared in Science Advances, an online academic  journal.

The horn - thought to have powers as a cure for cancer, an aphrodisiac and a cure-all in some Asian nations - currently goes for $60,000 a pound, the professor reports. There’s some activity in the U.S. as well. An Iowa taxidermist recently pleaded guilty to selling two black rhino horns to a trafficker; he now faces up to five years of jail time. A similar fate awaits a Texas taxidermist who had participated in a rhino horn sale in March.

Several states have introduced legislation banning such traffic; in late April, the U.S. Senate passed a bill prohibiting “any person from selling, offering to sell, purchasing, possessing with intent to sell, or importing for the purpose of purchase or sale any ivory or rhinoceros horn.”

Ivory is defined as the tooth or tusk from an elephant, hippopotamus, mammoth, narwhal, walrus, or whale.

“Decades of conservation efforts are being reversed by the entrance of organized crime into the ivory and rhino horn markets,” says Blaire Van Valkenburgh, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who co-authored the study.

But large scale efforts go on. Late last week, police in Mozambique revealed they had seized over a ton of elephant ivory and rhino horn - worth about $6.3 million, and the nation’s largest find of what law enforcement agencies deem “illegal wildlife products.” Sales are as high as $20 billion a year - and it is “the fourth most lucrative global crime after drugs, human trafficking and weapons, according to United for Wildlife, a coalition of wildlife interest groups, which also reports that 95 percent of the world’s rhinos have been lost in the last four decades.

There’s some innovative thinking underway, however. Pembient, a high-tech start-up company in Seattle, is now attempting to bioengineer synthetic rhino horn to help curb the use of the real thing overseas. A prototype will be unveiled in June. Reactions from animal rights activists have been mixed.

Douglas Hendrie, technical adviser at Education for Nature Vietnam, tells the New Scientist that the company is overlooking the fact that people also use rhino horn for its role as a status symbol.

That could be an issue. Pembient conducted a survey of 500 Vietnamese rhino horn users to find that only 45 percent said they would be willing to use a lab-made substitute.

• Jennifer Harper can be reached at jharper@washingtontimes.com.

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