Poaching is a global crisis. The decline in elephant populations has monopolized headlines, but elephants are not the only species threatened by poaching. Tigers, pangolin, apes, and rhino all suffer because their parts bring substantial profits on the black market. Organizations around the world are trying their best to reverse this trend and innovative solutions are theorized every day. The most intriguing is genetically engineered rhino horn.
While it sounds like something out of science fiction, a company is creating genetically identical rhino horn in a lab. Pembient, a startup from Seattle, is using biotechnology to fabricate genetically genuine rhino horn. Founders George Bonaci and Matthew Markus reproduce horns using 3D printing, a process for making objects from a three-dimensional digital model, typically by laying down many successive thin layers of a material. Using the genetic code of rhino horn, they are able to recreate an authentic looking horn.
Rhino horn is just keratin, the same fibrous protein you have in your finger nails and hair. Pembient incorporates rhino DNA into available keratin. They plan to flood the market with horn indistinguishable from one taken from a living rhino (fake horn shown above). Pembient’s founders believe their product will sell for an eighth of the black market rate, which they hope will force poachers out of business.
Like Bonaci and Markus, supporters of a legal trade believe a centralized marketplace could, in theory, cut illegal traders out of the profit loop. A legal system will decrease the black market value of rhino horn and lower demand for illegally taken horn. Legal trade will allow countries to control rhino horn as a legal export and provide revenue that can boost their economies. Furthermore, a legal trade system would produce income that would be invested directly back into rhino conservation.
Still, some are skeptical about the commercialization of such a controversial product. Some believe it could encourage consumers rather than deter them from using horn as medicines or drugs. Many are also concerned that law enforcement will be unable to distinguish between real and synthetic horn, which will slow their ability to intercept illegal rhino horn before it enters the market. Enforcement, however, is always a challenge, so one could argue that we need to adapt and consider new possibilities if we hope to make progress.
In a statement issued by the International Rhino Foundation, they side with the skeptics and believe, “selling synthetic horn does not reduce the demand for rhino horn [and] could lead to more poaching because it increases the demand for “the real thing.” In addition, production of synthetic horn encourages its purported medicinal value, even though science does not support any medical benefits.”
We live in an exciting time where science is actively being applied to solve international wildlife issues. SCI Foundation is interested to see how Pembient’s plan develops. Illegal traffickers are winning and whether it is through a legal market of real harvested horn or through a flooded market of synthetic horn, new options need to be explored.
After Pembient unveils its first products it plans to place small quantities on sale. A portion of the profits will be given to charities working to protect wild rhinos. Pembient also hopes to eventually create other animal products from creatures like tigers and elephants if their efforts prove successful.