After 40 million years roaming the earth, the rhinoceros has reached a point where it is classified as “critically endangered”—the Western black rhino has been declared extinct, and only one, single Northern white rhino is left alive on the planet. These majestic creatures have only one predator: humans. Rhino horns are highly prized by some in China and Vietnam as both status symbols and as an alternative “remedy”—one with no basis in medical fact. In the hope of curbing the poaching of rhinos, San Francisco-based biotech firm Pembient is planning to flood the market with 3D-printed synthetic rhino horn that is genetically identical to the real thing. The company also plans to launch a synthetic rhino horn beer later this year in China.

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Pembient creates the synthetic rhino horn by first making a dried powder of keratin and rhino DNA; this substance is not only genetically but also spectrographically similar to natural rhino horn. The powder can then be used in place of rhino horn for “medicinal” purposes, in cosmetics, and, as Pembient plans to—in the brewing of a traditional “hair of the dog” beer. Pembient has also used to powder in a 3D-printing process to create highly credible fake rhino horns.

The founders of the biotech firm are pretty confident their product will help slow rhino poaching. Real rhino horns go for up to $100,000 a piece, and in powdered form it’s worth more than cocaine or gold—up to $5,000 an ounce. But the synthetic horn is significantly cheaper, and as Pembient’s CEO Matthew Markus explained in a statement: “We surveyed users of rhino horn and found that 45% of them would accept using rhino horn made [in] a lab. In comparison, only 15% said they would use water buffalo horn, the official substitute for rhino horn.”

But conservation groups are not wholeheartedly swayed by the synthetic horn. As the International Rhino Foundation points out, Pembient’s product could lead to a market in which ““wild” rhino horn might be perceived as more valuable / desirable / potent than “farmed” or lab-grown / synthetic rhino horn, as seen with other wildlife plant and animal products, e.g. tiger bone and ginseng.” Moreover, the sale of a synthetic rhino horn beer as a hangover cure could serve to perpetuate the medical myths surrounding the animal, and a legal market in rhino horn could reduce the stigma of buying on the illegal market.

Time will tell—after the first of Pembient’s synthetic rhino horn products is released later this year—and Markus remains hopeful their product will undercut a trade that threatens to wipe out the rhino for good.

+ Pembient

Via Digital Journal

Images via Shutterstock (1,2)