Could Synthetic Horns Save Our Last Rhinos?
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
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.
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,