How One Tech Startup is Using 3D Printed Rhino Horns to Stop Poachers

These bio-engineered horns are completely identical to the real things. Its creators hope that more of these incredibly convincing horns in the market will drive down prices of real rhino horns and lead to fewer rhino deaths.
Shelby Rogers

Rhinos remain one of the most valued creatures in the animal kingdom while also being one of the highest-priced animals on the illegal wildlife market. One startup wants to give these majestic creatures a better chance to survive. 

Pembient is a two-year-old company based out of Seattle, Washington. The idea is simple: try to solve the rhino poaching crisis with a 3D printer and make 'new' horns out of keratin via 3D printing.  

Initially, the company harvested keratin in microorganisms like yeast. They then fusted those proteins together to create an identical cellular match. The only difference? Pembient's horns are slightly less durable than a rhino's natural horn. 

Pembient is a biotech company at its core, but when leaders heard about the rhino, using the high-quality manufacturing to game the system just felt right. Rhino horns can make someone more than $60,000 per pound. (For reference, the price of gold is just under $1,300.)

How One Tech Startup is Using 3D Printed Rhino Horns to Stop Poachers
Source: Pembient

"The vast price differences between wildlife products and domesticated animal products have always shocked me," Pembient founder Matthew Markus said in an interview with Radii. "The high prices wildlife products command can drive “extinction vortices” in which the rarest animals become the most hunted. Many people think the answer to this problem is a prohibition on wildlife products. We believe that, in some cases, using biotechnology to grow exact counterfeits cheaply could work as well or better than prohibition." 

That's precisely what Pembient is using technology and 3D printing to do. Markus said by pushing fabricated horns into key areas in the 'supply' chain, poachers and consumers won't know if they're buying the real deal or the fake. The idea stems from the economics concept of Gresham's Law: if a low-value good (in this case, a 3D printed horn) can pass as the real thing, it lowers the value of real objects on the market. 


The last thing that should happen, Markus noted, is an absolute ban on rhino horn trade. 

"If you cordon rhino horn off, you create this prohibition mindset," Markus told Business Insider. "And that engenders crime, corruption, and everything else that comes with a black market."

Not only is Pembient using 3D printing to craft these horns; they're using bitcoin technologies to fund the projects. The Kickstarter-like project used Ethereum's blockchain. For a donation, the PembiCoin will guarantee that the coin holder gets one gram of horn in a small-scale bio-fabrication of an actual horn. 

Conservation Controversy

Pembient's horns are genetically identical to the real ones. The only difference is that a rhino did not have to be maimed for life or killed in the process. While the actual evolutionary function of the rhino is unclear, many researchers consider the rhino's horn as its strongest defense mechanism. They use them to settle territory or status issues. Rhinos even use their horns to attract mates. 

Several African nations like Namibia are even preemptively dehorning rhinos on reserves so they could curtail invasive poaching. Once the horn is removed, the rhino becomes worthless in the eyes of the poachers. However, dehorning a rhino can injure the animal, and it has to be repeated once every one to two years.

A handful of rhino conservation groups support dehorning, but many have pointed out that most of the rhino horns on the market are already fake. 

In a joint statement, the International Rhino Foundation and Save the Rhino International said that some 90 percent of rhino horns are made from carved wood or buffalo horn. However, poaching rates continue to rise. 

Save the Rhino suggested any other way than dehorning would be preferred: "A first priority for all rhino conservationists should be to ensure adequate anti-poaching monitoring and security (including intelligence-gathering) to protect rhino populations, and only then should dehorning be considered, for is a rhino really a rhino without its horn?"

It's hard to determine which policy, procedure, or a bit of bio-engineering is most effective. However, given the continued growth of rhino deaths at the hands of poachers, something has to be done in both the African and Asian markets. 

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