A California biotech company plans to combat rhinoceros poaching by flooding the black market with horns created by 3D printers. The startup uses keratin, the protein found in horns, and rhino DNA to create synthetic horns nearly indistinguishable from the actual horns, enabling the company to sell them at one-eighth of the price and undercut poachers.
The company also plans to release a beer brewed with the synthetic horns later this year.
According to Matthew Markus, CEO of Pembient, the company will sell the horns at a fraction of the price of real horns, undercutting poachers to force them out of the market.
Rhinos certainly need more help and the desperateness of the situation is inspiring other non-traditional ideas. “There is a need to innovate from outside,” says Markus. “Conservation 1.0 is a little antiquated.” As the wealth of the elite in Asian countries has risen, the cost of the horn, along with the frequency of poaching incidents, has increased rapidly. By weight, its price exceeds that of gold. It is prized, particularly in Vietnam and China, as a status symbol and for its supposed “medicinal” qualities , unsupported by science, which include preventing hangovers, reducing fever and detoxifying the body following cancer treatment.
In South Africa, which has the largest rhino population of any country, poaching is at an all-time high. Poachers took an average of three a day in 2014, up from one a month in 2007. Save the Rhino’s most recent figures put the number of southern white rhinos at 20,405. Just five northern white rhinos remain, all of which are either too old to reproduce or infertile. Black rhinos, on the critically endangered list, number just 5,055 and one subspecies is already extinct. Two of the three Asian species are also classed as critically endangered and number less than 100 animals each.
Environmentalists aren’t as hopeful. Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation, told Quartz the solution is a bit more complicated than Pembient has portrayed it.
“Selling synthetic horn does not reduce the demand for rhino horns [and] could lead to more poaching because it increases the demand for ‘the real thing,’” she said. “In addition, production of synthetic horn encourages its purported medicinal value, even though science does not support any medical benefits. And, importantly, questions arise as to how law enforcement authorities will be able to detect the difference between synthetic and real horn, even if they are sold as powder or manufactured products.”