Poacher fooling 3D-printed rhino horns are two years away
Update: Pembient, the company looking to end the appeal of poaching by flooding the market with synthetic rhino horn, is approaching something resembling a finished product, and it should be complete within two years.
Speaking to the BBC, CEO Matthew Markus said, “Earlier this year, we produced low fidelity prototypes, they are solids but they don’t have all the properties of rhino horn and we are working now to produce these high quality bio-identical solids.”
“The higher fidelity prototypes may take two years and that’s unless all this flak scares investors off.”
That flak comes from environmentalists concerned the strategy is “too risky” and will backfire, leading to more poaching. WWF’s Lee Henry told the BBC that “In traditional medicines, people prefer wild products, that’s seen as more valuable – they don’t want products from farms or synthetic markets.”
“For a species like rhino that are being decimated by poaching for their products, do we want to test this now? I think its too big a risk to take, history has shown that when you create alternative products it doesn’t reduce demand for the genuine article.”
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Even in the most optimistic elevator pitches, I doubt many people listed “protecting rhinos” as a key benefit of 3D printing. But hot on the tail (pun definitely intended) of 3D-printed rats saving rodent lives, it looks like the highly endangered rhino could be a belated beneficiary of advanced technology.
Rhinoceroses have long been poached for their horns, which are sold as having scientifically flimsy medicinal and cosmetic benefits. The rhino’s status as an endangered species has led to prices hitting £41,000 per kilogram, higher than the price of cocaine, gold or diamonds. The result is that the last remaining male northern white rhino has to be kept under 24-hour armed guard, despite having some of his horn removed to make him less of a target.
Yet such deterrents make the rhino even more valuable, so what can be done to make the rhino’s horn less attractive a commodity? A startup called Pembient has an idea: flooding the market with fake – but genetically identical – rhino horn, forcing the poachers out of business.
“We can produce a rhinoceros horn product that’s actually more pure than what you can get from a wild animal,” Pembient’s CEO Matthew Markus told Digital Journal. “There are so many contaminants, pesticides, fallout from Fukushima. Rhino horn in the lab is as pure as that of a rhino of 2,000 years ago.”
How do they do it? Well, rhino horn is made of keratin, a protein also found in your fingernails and hair. The difference is that nobody wants to pay £41,000 for a kilogram of your hair and toenail clippings. But by mixing keratin with rhinoceros DNA, Pembient can create an imitation it sees as indistinguishable from the genuine article – and no rhinos were harmed in the making of this product.
“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,” Markus explained to Fast Company.
It’s an innovative solution to a long-held problem. While elsewhere drones have been considered as one hi-tech option, the 3D-printed solution has its sights set on a far less evasive target: supply-side economics and human greed.