A biotech startup is trying to end poaching by flooding the market with fake rhino horns

  • The world’s last male northern white rhino died this week.
  • Rhino horns can fetch up to $US60,000 per pound on the black market, more than the price of gold
  • A startup called Pembient is taking a novel approach: 3D printing rhino horns to flood the market and undercut black-market business

The world’s last male northern white rhinoceros, a male named Sudan, died on March 19 after being euthanised due to age-related illness.

There are only two members of the species left in the world, and both are female, so they’re unable to continue the population.

It’s yet another sign that rhino populations around the world are in serious trouble.

Rhinos are among the hardest hit by the illegal wildlife trade. The horns fetch high prices on the black market – around to $US3,000 per pound, down from a high of over $US60,000 per pound a few years ago.

They’re used to make elaborate carvings across East Asia and are also believed to have curative properties in some traditional Eastern medicine practices. Consumers pay thousands of dollars for these products.

Pembient, a two-year-old Seattle-based biotech startup, is trying to solve the rhino poaching crisis with a 3D printer and some clever economics. The idea is to “bio-fabricate” rhino horns out of keratin – the same material that fingernails and hair are made of – using 3D printing to undercut the horn market.

The horns are genetically identical to real ones on the “macroscopic, microscopic, and molecular” level, Matthew Markus, Pembient’s CEO and cofounder, told Business Insider. The fabricated horns, once perfected and market-ready, will look and feel so real that distinguishing them from the natural ones will be impossible.

People won’t know whether they’re buying real horns or fake ones

Matthew markus pembient
Matthew Markus, CEO and co-founder of Pembient. Matthew Markus

Rhino poaching in South Africa, a global hotspot, has declined in recent months, but the problem is still dire: 1,028 rhinos were killed in the country in 2017, up from just 13 in 2007, according to the nonprofit Save the Rhino. That’s equivalent to three rhinos illegally slaughtered each day.

The art and antiques market in China largely drives the problem, according to a paper published in the journal Biological Conservation. Most buyers in China purchase high-value rhino-horn carvings as investments and collectible items, the study’s lead author Yufang Gao wrote.

Pembient’s fabricated horns will eventually be sold as raw material to traditional carvers in Asia, and used to produce high-value goods like bracelets and combs that fetch exorbitant prices on the black market.

By pushing fabricated horns into the supply-chain at various points, Markus explained, people won’t know whether they’re buying real rhino horns or fake one.

Because the fake horns are much cheaper to produce, they could be sold at a lower cost and push prices down across the board. (Because Pembient is still in its early stages, however, exact prices for the fabricated horns aren’t set yet.) Ideally, the market will end up charging less for every horn, since there won’t be a reliable way to tell the difference.

Pembient borrowed this idea from a concept in economics called Gresham’s Law, according to Markus, which states that if a low-value good, like a fake rhino horn, is passed off as the real thing, it drives down the value of all such items on the market.

“If you cordon rhino horn off, you create this prohibition mindset,” Markus said. “And that engenders crime, corruption, and everything else that comes with a black market.”

Markus hopes his plan will eventually lower incentives for poachers to slaughter rhinos.

A different approach to conservation

Pembient’s strategy is a radical departure from the traditional demand-reduction approach espoused by conservationists. Reducing demand for rhino horns is “infeasible,” Markus said. “And it’s not really ethical either.”

“These practices are based on thousands of years of cultural tradition – they’re a lot older than Thanksgiving,” he added. “We can’t just tell them to stop.”

Some conservationists, however, don’t agree.

The International Rhino Foundation and Save The Rhino International, two NGOs dedicated to rhino conservation, have pointed out that many rhino horns fetching astronomical prices on the black market are already fake.

Pembient rhino horns
Pembient’s bio-fabricated rhino horns. Matthew Markus

“More than 90% of ‘rhino horns’ in circulation are fake (mostly carved from buffalo horn or wood), but poaching rates continue to rise annually,” the organisations wrote in a joint statement.

The statement also argued that developing and marketing synthetic horns diverts attention from efforts to end rhino poaching, which is the “real problem.”

But other groups are more open to the novel approach.

“It would be rash to rule out the possibility that trade in synthetic rhinoceros horn could play a role in future conservation strategies,” TRAFFIC, a nonprofit that monitors the wildlife trade, wrote in a 2015 paper.

Another anti-poaching strategy involves park rangers and veterinarians surgically removing rhino horns (they grow back) to protect the animals from being hunted. But that also brings up ethical issues.

The path ahead for rhino conservation

Markus has attended conservation conferences around the world, and readily acknowledges the stark difference between his approach and that of most traditional conservationists.

“While we both have the same goals,” he said. “There’s been a lot of friction.”

Pembient is now pursuing some novel funding strategies to get its horns on the market.

In August 2017, the company introduced a cryptocurrency via an initial coin offering, called Pembicoin. The coin offering is an effort fund research into the bio-fabricated horns and gauge consumer demand, according to the company’s website.

For every coin purchased now earns the buyer one gram of biofabricated rhino horn once they become available in 2022.

A version of this story previously ran in September 2016.