A start-up called Pembient is 3D-printing rhinoceros horn from keratin (the fibrous structural protein that also makes up skin, hair and nails) that is genetically identical to real rhino horn. The hope is that synthetic horn can be sold for alternative medicine as a cheaper alternative to real horn, which is worth up to US $60,000 per kilogram on the black market, thus reducing rhino poaching.
"We surveyed users of rhino horn and found that 45% of them would accept using rhino horn made from a lab", Pembient Co-founder Matthew Markus told TechCrunch. "In comparison, only 15% said they would use water buffalo horn, the official substitute for rhino horn."
Pembient hopes to start selling the artificial horn in autumn, at one-tenth of the price of real ones. It is also testing ways to bioengineer elephant ivory, pangolin scales and tiger bone: all endangered animal parts that are traded on the black market.
The illegal wildlife trade, a $20 billion industry, is the fourth-largest black market in the world after drugs, arms and human trafficking. Around 95% of the world’s rhino population has been lost to poaching in the last 40 years, and poaching rates have increased sharply since 2007, pushing the species to near extinction.
Image caption: Fine lines between rhino and reality
Image credit: Wolf Ademelt / Flickr
Rhino conservation efforts currently focus on curbing consumer demand, strengthening legislation and providing on-the-ground rhino protection. The idea of producing synthetic horn, though well-intentioned, has drawn scepticism from conservationists, many of whom fear it could make the situation worse.
Kent Redford, Director for Biodiversity Analysis and Coordination at the Wildlife Conservation Society told Motherboard that a market for synthetic horn risks increasing the status symbol of and demand for the real thing. Redford warned of a potential “two-tiered product market, where there’s a wild product that’s even more expensive,” similar to the price of wild tiger bone being higher than that from farmed tigers.
Concerns by the International Rhino Foundation and Save the Rhino International include: that it de-stigmatises buying rhino horn, that it will be impossible for law enforcers to distinguish between real and synthetic horn, and that it will give credence to the notion that rhino horn has medicinal value, which is not supported by science. Moreover, at least 90% of “rhino horns” in circulation are fake, yet poaching levels continue to rise.
Addressing the criticisms, Markus argued that there is no need to curb demand: "This is something people want, and we have the technology to make it available to them. Why not try to satisfy their needs instead of telling them their needs are wrong?" He is confident that legal synthetic horns can eventually replace the black market trade for real ones but says that Pembient will monitor the market closely and is willing to cease production if the scheme fails or causes harm to rhino populations.
Advances in bioengineering and 3D printing technology have given rise to several start-ups producing biological material, including lab grown meat, and experimentation on human organ production. If the use of synthetic rhino horn is successful, how else may synthetic biological material aid conservation efforts in the future? Or if the synthetic market increases poaching levels, will legislation move to prevent synthetic animal part production?
TechCrunch (2015, April 27) Biotech startup Pembient is making rhino horns, sans rhino
New Scientist (2015, May 01) 3D printed horns may put rhinos at greater risk or extinction