Could Synthetic Horns Save Our Last Rhinos?

Black rhinos boast two horns, with the foremost being the more prominent one. Females use their horns to protect their young, while males use them to battle attackers. ©Wilderness Safaris

Black rhinos boast two horns, with the foremost being the more prominent one. Females use their horns to protect their young, while males use them to battle attackers. ©Wilderness Safaris

From making a Technicolor arm for a little girl to constructing custom pacemakers for people with damaged hearts, 3D printing has provided us with a wealth of medical aids. But humans haven’t been the only ones to benefit from this new technology: for example, in the spring of 2015, a sea turtle that collided with a boat propeller was given a second chance with a 3D-printed, titanium jaw.

Now, however, a Seattle-based bioengineering company, Pembient, has come up with a synthetic, 3D-printed rhino horn. Only this time, the product isn’t meant to act as an appendage for an animal but to stem the tide of poaching rhinos to the brink of extinction for their horns, which are used in traditional Chinese medicines, for cancer treatments and for aphrodisiacs (uses for which there is no medical evidence that rhino horn is effective).

But could the 3D-printed horns actually hurt the remaining rhino population even more?

A plan for the products

Last year, in South Africa alone, more than a thousand rhinos were killed by poachers. ©Dana Allen

Since 2007, rhino poaching has risen dramatically. In 2014 in South Africa alone, a record 1,215 rhinos were slaughtered.

Anti-poaching efforts have traditionally focused on educating consumers in order to curb demand, strengthening anti-trafficking and poaching laws, and ramping up on-the-ground protections. Yet, it seems, we have yet to make headway in the illegal trade.

Pembient believes the solution, therefore, lies not in reining in demand but in satisfying the market in a way that doesn’t kill rhinos. The company’s artificial horns are manufactured with a keratin-based powder that has the same spectrographic signature as real rhino horn. Pembient states that Vietnamese rhino horn users who sampled fake powder made from their synthetics said it had a similar smell and feel to that produced from wild rhinos.

By autumn, Pembient hopes to flood the market with its fabricated, 3D horns, charging one-tenth of the price for illegal, real ones. The company says that the printed products would eventually displace real, black market rhino horns because they are cheaper, would be legal and are guaranteed to be unadulterated with cutting agents, such as water buffalo horn.

A problem for the pachyderms

Some conservationists, however, warn that Pembient’s plan may backfire. Synthetic horns, they say, would only serve as smoke screens for the illegal, real-horn black markets in places such as China and Vietnam, where the genuine product sells for up to $60,000 per kilogram. The fear is that the manufactured horn could actually stimulate demand by making rhino horn—no matter the variety—more readily available. That would implicitly endorse the use of rhino horn, which undermines efforts to educate current and future horn users against adopting the practice.

Will synthetic horns save the world’s last remaining rhinos? ©Caroline Culbert

Will synthetic horns save the world’s last remaining rhinos? ©Caroline Culbert

Unfortunately, even if Pembient’s theory is correct, in a survey of 500 Vietnamese rhino horn users that was commissioned by the company, only 45 percent of the respondents said they would be willing to use a lab-made substitute. It’s conceivable that the fake-horn product could make real rhino horn powder even more valuable as a status symbol.

Despite these concerns, Pembient hopes to synthesize ivory, pangolin scales, tiger bone and other wildlife products in the future.

Do you think inundating the market with synthetic rhino horns is a good idea? Or will it only increase the consumer demand for real rhino horn products, putting the animals in an even more dangerous position?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,


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  1. Jagannathan Narayanan

    Doubt if it will work. This is akin to flooding the market with fake art. The genuine will always stand out against the fake and this will only enhance the value of the original. Since China and other South East Asian countries are the buyers of these contraband, pressure should be brought to bear on their governments. Alsso the supply route should be cut off. I realize this is already being done to a large extent, but it is more important now than ever before.

  2. Kathryn Papp

    This will probably segment the market, so that more people will have access to “rhino horn”. The overall market and awareness of rhino horn will grow … but the value of real horn will rise with rarity.

    Unless this initiative SIMULTANEOUSLY implements a program to protect the actual animals AND sets up funds flow from synthetic horn sales to support it … this is a nice money maker for them, but does little to stop extinction itself.

    In fact, without channeling money and managing an on-the-ground protection program … they will literally own the market. The question then becomes is there any value in “3D rhino horn” without the actual animal and original source being in existence?

  3. Carol Evans

    I am so glad someone is doing this!

  4. Antony Lynam

    If the synthetic version of rhino horn is much cheaper than the real thing, there might be a market in Asia for fake rhino horn. Some TCM outlets trading rhino horn may be interested in substituting the real product for the synthetic product thus duping unsuspecting customers and making a profit. Ultimately this would do nothing to reduce the demand for rhino horn which is what ultimately needs to happen if rhinos are to be saved from extinction.

  5. Joseph Wong

    I hope so I really do! Although there’s always someone out there looking for the ‘real thing’ its really sad.

  6. Laster Stoney Ogola

    Let us give it a try, most interventions will always start with a pilot so long as there is a detailed plan.

  7. Laurencce D

    Rhino horns, tiger bones, etc. are status symbols for the big buyers. Health comes far behind. When you hold a party and are wealthy, you offer some to your friends and the rarest, the more endangered the animal is, the more social status you gain.
    False furs have not stopped nouveaux riches buying real spotted cats furs to prove they are above the rest. Idealy the best would be to catch a few high ranking buyers, send them to court and expose them in a way that makes them loose face and status.
    They want to gain more status, they might think twice before taking the risk to loose face, and exposure will also kill their image as status models.
    But how many countries are ready to sue their own powerful citizens to save nature?

    I fear that flooding the market with “false” horns will mainly validate their supposed medical effect.
    I would do the opposite: promote the idea that all this is of no interest, that modern, cheaper, medicine is much more efficient and that going on paying a fortune for something so useless can be detrimental to both your self image and social status.

  8. David Kay

    I agree with Kathryn. Also, it would be good to know if there have been other attempts to do anything similar, and how they worked out. Speculation: Since the dealers are by definition greedy and unscrupulous, I would think they would embrace the opportunity to cut costs and simply lie about the product when approached for “real” horn, if they can’t be detected. Buyers could demand to see the powder ground off the horn, I suppose, but having hundreds of relatively poor end users going to one wealthy person who has an obvious horn would make that person conspicuous.

  9. Grace Gabriel

    It is unfortunate that people come up with these “alternatives” without trying to understand the motivation driving the demand. For people who covet rhino horn carvings as a status symbol, cheap price is not going to be the motivation. In fact, the higher the price, the more they would want to buy because it would show their “status”. Look what I have, I can afford a rhino horn costing tens of thousands of dollars! For people who buy rhino horn for “cures”, they also will not want to grind down plastic to drink, will they?

    I wish the company could put their talent and money on something that can truly help the species. This link is to IFAW’s initiative using an augmented reality elephant for public awareness. In this shopping mall, you will notice that kids are given 3-D printed elephants as takeaways. This is a good example of a Chinese company supporting the demand reduction campaign using innovative technology.

  10. Santosh Kumar

    Human desire has no end. If the common people find a new product like artificial rhino horn at an affordable price, they may jump into a new habit and the chance may increase that their demand for real rhino horns may be a boost for the rhino poachers.

  11. Patrick Spencer

    How would the synthetic horns reduce the demand, when it appears that the major use of the horns is for medicinal purposes?

  12. Matthew Lesperance

    There are two philosophies to the synthetic horn. First If you continue to flood the market with fake horns, users will not be able to tell the difference between what is real and fake and therefore will give up or hopefully become educated and realize the horn is worthless to them. This will require a massive amount of fake horns while infiltrating the industry and replacing the service lines. The second purpose is to create a lower demand without causing harm to any animal relying on basic supply and demand principles, which in turn will bring the cost down putting the poacher out of business.

  13. Festus Kilonzi

    If it can bring about reduction in poaching of Rhinos around the world,then i think it is a good idea,and yes i think it can …….

  14. Jeff Turnage

    I suspect rhino horn, elephant ivory, and other rare animal artifacts are investment commodities, independent of any actual or perceived use. Rarity fuels their investment value. I’m certain there are hundreds who would love to own the horn of the last Northern white rhino. I don’t see any chance of reducing that demand to such a level as to have an impact on poaching. I think the most effective conservation mechanism will be militarization of protected habitat. Utilize all the technology and manpower we put into killing each other against poachers.

  15. Carol Evans

    If the same rumor was out that artificial horn cures cancer then you would have a market. It’s a cultural perception. Change the culture save the rhino.


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