This biotech company says they can stem a black market that is wiping out rhinos. So why are conservationists so mad at them?
Illustration by Tom Eichacker
Within just a few short years, 3-D printing has gone from a little known technology with limited novelty potential for mass consumers to one of the most revolutionary technologies of our times. In recent months, evangelists of the manufacturing technique have scored public relations coups by promising to create superior and cost-effective everything—from prosthetic limbs to luxury cars to sex toys. Now, over the past few weeks, the 3-D printing hype machine has taken one more giant leap by promising to mend a seemingly inescapable modern wound: Some entrepreneurs believe they can staunch the crisis of rhino poaching by printing fake horns.
This is a pretty bold claim, given how rabid and entrenched the market for rhino horns has become. Thanks to rising demand from a growing middle class in East and Southeast Asia, where rhino horns are valued as medicinal additives or status symbols, these goods sell for about $100,000 per kilo (the average horn weights one to three kilos)—a pricier commodity than cocaine or gold. These prices have led to a massive spike in poaching, with rhino deaths in South Africa alone rising from 13 in 2007 to at least 1,215 in 2014. With black rhino populations down by almost 98 percent since 1960 and only one white rhino male (and four females) left in the world, the ravenous and growing taste for the beasts’ horns could be extinction-level deadly if something doesn’t shake up the black market in the next few years.
Enter Pembient, a new bioengineering startup out of Seattle, which claims it has the 3-D printed solution to the rhino’s woes. Using an ink made of keratin, the material that composes rhino horns (and human fingernails) infused with traces of black rhino DNA, the company is able to print solid or powdered rhino horns which they argue are biologically indistinguishable from the real thing. Based on preliminary research conducted in Vietnam, a huge horn market, the company believes that up to 45 percent of current horn users would consume medicinal products using lab-made horn. And others, they argue, can be tricked into buying synthetic horns. In April 2015, Pembient produced a public prototype of their pseudo-horn, which retails for as low as one-eighth the price of a true horn. In recent weeks they’ve also had discussions with companies using horn or horn substitutes in their products (like a Chinese beer) to see if they’d consider using their printed horns instead. Pembient hopes that within a few years they’ll be able to flood the market with enough fake horns to discourage poachers from seeking the real thing.
This vision of conquering poaching through economics, sans the messy business of changing attitudes or patrolling game preserves, has caught the media’s attention in a serious way. Many have speculated as to whether the process could be copied for other endangered animals. But conservationists have been wary of Pembient. They argue that flooding the market with fake horns could legitimize belief in the horn’s medicinal-to-magical properties, increasing demand. Or it could make it harder to identify poached horns and prosecute traffickers and their criminal syndicates. Conservationists also point out that cheap fakes (mainly water buffalo horns, a common knock-off) are already all over the market and have yet to put a big dent in poaching. So, their logic goes, these new synthetic horns could be more of a danger than a godsend for rhinos.
Pembient has claimed that it will cut off the product if it sees a negative reaction in the horn market, i.e. a related rise in poaching. But both they and conservationists recognize the fragility of the situation—how rapidly rhinos could vanish if things get much worse. I recently spoke to company co-founder and CEO Matthew Markus. We talked about how he plans to get his horns onto the market, why he’s less than worried about a black market backlash, and how he sees his mission as meshing with wider conservation efforts.
You’re not the first people to look at making synthetic horns. There was Ceratotech that wanted to use stem cells. So how is your project different or superior to previous attempts that never gained much attention?
I think it just comes down to the fact that the biochemical approach we’re working on is quicker and scales better in lots of ways than the stem cell approach does. We have a tissue engineer as an advisor and she gave us a budget of maybe $3 million to make a prototype using a stem cell approach. You don’t want to spend $3 million to make a prototype and then get feedback later and find out it’s not something people want. The way we were doing it we could generate prototypes very quickly. I was able to take prototypes to Vietnam. We were able to get feedback and improve the product quicker.
In the past you’ve acknowledged an urgency to this project—we know that some rhino species could go extinct within a decade or two. How quickly do you think you can scale up to full production and distribution?
We want to be at scale by 2017. We’re closing out 2015, and that’s about learning about the market, refining our prototypes, doing limited test marketing, and that kind of stuff. Figuring out more about where we should put our resources for scale. And I think 2016 is more about getting partnerships and also exploring the South African side of the equation, because that’s where our technology makes more sense than maybe in the direct-to-Eastern market approach.
When you talk about the South African side, are you talking about flooding the market with more than just rhino horn as an additive in pre-packaged consumer products [like the Chinese beer that has been cited almost every time your horns get written up]?
Exactly. There’re a few ways to attack this problem:
One is by partnering with companies that currently use water buffalo horn, which is treated as the poor alternative to rhino horn, and working with them to build products that are safe and secure and that people will want to use rather than black market products that have no safety or quality guarantees.
The other is, with the printing technology, to create horns and objects that people could actually get [whole] and sell up the black market chain and make some income in that way.
We hope that regardless [of whether it’s whole or an additive], if the horn comes, people will view it as sort of a cutting agent. A cutting agent in the drug trade is something that’s cheaper than and inferior to the drug being cut. We hope that we’ll be cheaper to the product being cut but not inferior to the product being cut in any way. So we think in the black market chain people will use that more and more to boost their market and eventually they’ll say, ‘why are we even doing anything illegal when we could use the synthetic product and no one would ever know?’
Image by Ruth Hartnup via Flickr
You’ve had critics from the conservation world who’ve said that 90 percent of the horns on the market are already fakes and that cutting and fraud hasn’t led to a decrease in demand. So why will your product make such a big difference?
[That figure] wasn’t necessarily based off a controlled scientific group. 90 percent might not be a real number. But yes there are a significant amount fakes out there. We view the fake market as being a buffer on true demand. If there weren’t fakes on the market then the demand for real rhinoceros horn would be even greater.
Forensic technologies … are becoming very cheap and being deployed very widely. In a few years your cellphone could easily have a little spectrographic sensor in it. All these tools, people will be able to use very quickly to find out if something’s fake or not in the marketplace. So when these fakes start to be eliminated by these technological advances there will be no more fakes available to buffer the true demand on rhinoceros horn. We think that will be a hard physical time for the rhinoceros. So we’re hoping to fill that gap by building our products, which are synthetic and can fool all of those detecting methods.
What about the prestige market? If the prestige is owning what people believe is a certified rhino horn, rather than consuming an acceptable synthetic, don’t you worry that you could create an even more expensive market for certified horns?
Well, certification usually comes from courts or governments. They’re able to back up claims. There’s really no certification standard [in the black market]. You just have to rely [on the fact] that the next person in the chain is really telling you the truth. It’s not a great branded experience. You wouldn’t buy a Coach bag that way, or any other luxury product.
We don’t think there can be two parallel markets. There will be our market, and the price we set the horn at will be the price that the horn will become. If something happens and there will be a legal market in horns—you probably know CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) is going to take this issue up in 2016—we don’t believe there should be a legal trade in rhinoceros horns. We do not believe rhinoceroses should be farmed for their horns. We think as long as there’s a single market and we’re playing in that market, there’s going to be no way to tell us apart from that wild product.
I find black markets to be extraordinarily wily in developing the necessary means to keep trade going. If you have syndicates predicated on their viable horn market, do you really think they couldn’t develop some certification deemed legitimate by the buyers at least?
I come from the state of Washington. Marijuana’s legal there. People seem to prefer to buy their marijuana from tax-paying businesses for the safety and security standards they can get from that path. Cross-border trade in marijuana has dropped significantly, but I don’t see the Mexican cartels developing some sort of certification process or making their product better or whatever.
Markets are great but they’re not omni-powerful. I don’t know how they’d self-organize into developing a certification strategy. They’d have to develop their own courts, it just seems beyond what they’re able to do. I’d love a counter-example, but I’m not sure there is one.
You’ve also gotten some criticism from wildlife groups who say that your getting into the market will hinder efforts to educate people against the use of horns. Do you think that those education campaigns are viable? Or does your project implicitly say they aren’t? And if you were creating a “legal horn,” wouldn’t a campaign against the use of horn be antithetical to your attempts to get into that market?
This gets into a whole bunch of cans of worms.
One of the reasons that we don’t like the standard conservation techniques is that they set up a zero sum game between cultural traditions and animals. They say that these cultural traditions have to be destroyed or limited for these animals to survive. We don’t necessarily buy that. We believe in creating room where the animals can live unmolested and where the cultural traditions can continue. So that’s the route we’re going to pursue.
There are lots of demand reduction strategies. I think some of those demand reduction strategies actually raise demand. When I was in Vietnam someone told us, ‘they spend so much money telling us not to use rhino horn, so it must work.’
What we do is work with the organizations that are doing demand reduction and get them to focus on the wild product, pointing out that the wild product in most cases is toxic, especially with things like shark fin but also with rhino horn that often comes from taxidermy places with arsenic in it. You just don’t know what you’re getting on a black market.
There’s been a lot of coverage about the negative responses to your product from conservation groups, but what has the positive response been like and who’s behind you now?
There’s a movement underway to eliminate society’s dependence on animals for animal products. This movement extends to factory farming. We see a lot coming down the line like milk made without cows brewed in yeast. Chicken protein without chickens brewed in yeast. Artificial printed leather. Biotech is basically forging a way to eliminate the need for animals.
We’re just part of this movement. There are a lot of people who don’t like how factory farming has turned out. They turn to us and see a solution to the farming of wild animals for products. I don’t think that rhinos should be farmed for their horns. So if we could jump into the future, bypassing the farming for horn, then that would be a great good. I think a lot of people aligned with the movement around factory farming see us as a beneficial technology or something that’s inevitable.