White Rhino Sudan
African rhino populations are dwindling because of poachers who kill the giant animals before exporting their horns to Vietnam and China. Now, one company thinks 3D-printed rhino horns are the solution. Reuter/Thomas Mukoya

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.

Asia's demand for rhino horns has pushed the animal to the brink of extinction, with 2015 on pace to set a new record for the number of rhinos killed. Keratin, the material found in human fingernails, is driving much of that demand, with Vietnam and China pushing the price of keratin higher than cocaine or gold. Now Pembient, a San Francisco-based biotech company dedicated to fabricating wildlife products, says its figured out a way to force poachers out of business.

Along with fake horns, Pembient also plans to put lab-made products into a new kind of beer, then eventually lotions, traditional medicines and other products.

“We can produce a rhinoceros horn product that is actually more pure than what you can get from a wild animal,” Pembient CEO Matthew Markus told FastCoexist.com. “We're like the universal cutting agent. 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.”

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.”


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