Biotech startup Pembient is planning to deploy the forces of DNA technology and economics to save the rhino. It's risky plan, that could undermine other efforts, but with poaching out of control and subpopulations on the verge of extinction Pembient argue this is the best bet for the survival of the rhinoceroses in the wild.
The problem is familiar. The belief that rhino horn treats fevers or beautifies the skin, has stoked a global industry with prices soaring to $65,000 per kilogram ($30,000 /pound). With prices higher than cocaine, organised crime cartels have inevitably got involved. While the poachers taking the risks on the ground are often desperately poor, those running the show have the wealth and power to circumvent attempts to control the trade.
As a result, the world's last male northern white rhino is under permanent armed guard, (paid for in part by cricket matches) even though part of his horn has been removed to make him a less attractive target.
So if there are not enough armed guards in the world to protect the surviving rhinos, and if appeals to reason or ethics fail to stem the demand, what else can we do? Flood the market, Pembient argues.
Rhino horn is just keratin, the same fibrous protein you have in your finger nails and hair. No one is ransacking your house to steal your nailclippings because human keratin is not in short supply. So Pembient wants to take keratin, add some rhino DNA and 3D print the resulting product into a horn indistinguishable from one taken from a living rhino.
The product will sell for an eighth of the market rate for horns mutilated from previously living rhinos, which Pembient believes will force poachers out of business. "We're like the universal cutting agent," Pembient CEO Matthew Markus told Fast Company. "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."
Indeed, Pembient argue their product is superior to wild rhino horn, since it has not been affected by pollution.
Vietnamese ad for Pembient imitation rhino horn in skin care products.
One of the entirely unscientific properties credited to rhino horn is as a hangover cure, so Pembient are partnering with a Beijing brewery to add their fake horn to beer.
Not everyone is convinced however. Marketing of Pembient horns could legitimize the pseudoscientific beliefs in rhino horn properties, the International Rhino Foundation warned Quartz. Moreover, authorities trying to catch poachers may have trouble telling Pembient horns from the illegal product, although DNA fingerprinting may resolve that problem.
Another question that can probably only be answered by trying it is whether, if rhino poachers are forced out of business, they will shift their attention to other endangered species, or shift to less destructive industries. Meanwhile, Pembient are already turning their thinking to the much larger trade in ivory.
H/T Digital Journal.