A huge spike in poaching in recent years has left several species of rhinoceros on the brink of extinction. And a new San Francisco-based biotech firm has an unconventional solution to help ease the crisis — flooding the market with cheap, 3D-printed synthetics in hopes of crashing the price of the real stuff.
Some conservation organizations, however, warn the plan could backfire.
Thirteen rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa in 2007, but each year since has brought staggering, exponential growth. More than 600 were slain in 2012, the number topped 1,000 a year later, and 2014 saw a record 1,215 killings by poachers. Just over 5,000 black rhinos — and a single remaining male northern white rhino, which lives under armed guard in Kenya — remain worldwide.
Headed by CEO Matthew Markus, Pembient, the San Francisco startup, uses rhino DNA and keratin, a protein found in both rhino horns and human fingernails, to create a dry powder used as the 'ink' for a 3D printer. It's then printed into a solid hunk that looks, and is genetically indistinguishable, from the authentic horn. One planned outlet for the fake: The company has partnered with a Beijing-based brewery on a rhino beer made with the synthetic powder. The brew, which is popular in the region as a purported hangover cure, could hit Chinese markets this fall.
"We're like the universal cutting agent," Markus told Fast Company. "In the drug trade, usually a cutting agent is something that's cheaper and inferior to the product being cut. But if we can offer something as good as the product being cut but vastly cheaper, then anyone in the trade will naturally gravitate to using our product."
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More valuable by weight than gold or cocaine, rhino horns weigh in at 1-3 kilograms apiece, depending on the species, and can sell illegally for up to $100,000 per kilogram. Only drugs, arms,and human trafficking are larger than the $20 billion global black market for illegal wildlife trade. Demand for rhino horns, once rumored to possess magical abilities but now sought as a status symbol or for its supposed medicinal powers, has exploded in recent years, especially in Vietnam.
In a Reddit AMA on Monday, Markus said the high price is the "single greatest driver" of rhino poaching and corruption in prosecuting poachers, which led him and his company to fabricate the horn in the laboratory.
"Our horns are practically indistinguishable from wild horns," Markus said. "By creating an unlimited supply of horns at one-eighth of the current market price, there should be far less incentive for poachers to risk their lives or government officials to accept bribes."
Anti-poaching groups criticized Pembient's plan.
Cathy Dean, international director of the UK-based NGO Save the Rhino, told VICE News, that introducing synthetic rhino horn is "really potentially quite dangerous."
"It's undermining efforts of NGOs on the ground to reduce demand. When you create these new uses, it gives all the responsible conservation organizations a whole heap more work to do," Dean told VICE News. "Pembient doesn't appear to have to talked to any conservation organizations to ask what they thought. I appreciate that they feel they're coming with a new and radically different approach, but it's just strange not to be working in a collaborative way."
Related: Namibia is dehorning rhinos to combat rising poaching
In May, Save the Rhino issued a joint statement with the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) opposing use of the synthetic horn. IRF's executive director Susie Ellis laid out three root problems with the plans in a statement to Quartz: that selling synthetic horns could, instead, increase demand for real ones, that producing fakes encourages perceptions of rhino horn's scientifically-dubious medical value, and that high-quality synthetics would make it harder for law enforcement to identify and prosecute illegal horns.
Richard Thomas, global communications coordinator for TRAFFIC, an international organization that monitors wildlife trade, said that substitutes already exist; yet consumers have kept buying rhino horn.
"There's plenty of evidence that much of the horn currently available in Vietnam is fake horn — but that hasn't quashed demand or taken pressure off poaching," Thomas told VICE News. "Will current or potential consumers be convinced to buy a substitute instead? We really don't know."
Dean instead stressed supporting traditional, long-term conservation strategies, like increasing security in places where the rhinos are threatened, conducting behavior change campaigns to reduce consumer demand, and working with governments to craft stricter laws and ramp up enforcement.
"The attention on Pembiant is really deflecting attention from the real need: focusing on those good, solid actions, which take time, which take perseverance, which take money," Dean told VICE News. "Frankly, synthetic horn is a red herring. It's not going to save the rhinos."
Related: Scientists have created the UK's first herd of 'eco-cows'
Follow Darren Ankrom on Twitter: @darrenankrom