Animal’s Daily Rhinoceros News

Science!

Everyone knows that rhinocerii aren’t doing too well these days.  A big part of the reason for that is because massive ignoramuses in various parts of the world have the idea that powdered rhino horn has some medical value, or that it will result in “male enhancement.”

That has, of course, led to a huge black market in rhino horns.  It’s illegal to raise rhinos for their horn; which that may solve part of the problem, there’s possibly a better solution.

Synthetic rhino horn.  Excerpt:

Belief in rhino horns’ healing capabilities dates back to the second century B.C., as the powder was reported to reduce heat and remove toxins. Demand for horn products has greatly increased since 2008, and today rhino horn is more often valued as an exclusive status symbol.

Matthew Markus, CEO of the Seattle-based biotechnology company Pembient, sees this preference for rarity as an opportunity to reduce poaching. Over the past few years Pembient, along with other companies like CeratoTech and Rhinoceros Horn LLC, has started 3-D printing biologically similar artificial horns. This idea isn’t exclusive for rhinos either, as Pembient aspires to biofabricate pangolin scales, elephant tusks and tiger bones as well. At the University of Oxford one biologist is working on synthetic elephant ivory.

Currently, Pembient’s process involves engineering yeast cells to produce keratin, the predominant protein found in rhino horn, which is then combined with rhino DNA and trace elements. This aggregate makes up the “ink” for printing. So far, Pembient has only created low-fidelity miniature horns, but plans to have larger higher grade prototypes in less than two years. The horns aren’t commercially ready, but Pembient has already received interest from artisans, carvers and industrial designers.

Markus claims that introducing indistinguishable biofabricated horns at one-eighth of the price for real horn would lower wild rhino horn value. “At some point we would crash through the illicit profits that motivate people that go out there and risk their lives,” said Markus.

There are a couple of reasons this might not have the desired effect, though.

  1. Bob didn’t use rhino horn.

    Flooding the market with synthetics allows the ignorant goofs that believe in the medical or “male enhancement” value of rhino horn, to continue believing this utter nonsense – and may increase demand in the short term.

  2. An eventual side effect may be that the wealthy and ignorant may demand proof of the authenticity of the rhino horn, which would drive the price of the real thing even higher.

There are other solutions; for a brief time, South African farmers could be licensed to raise rhinos and periodically harvest their horns.  That produced a lower-priced, legal supply, and if deregulated, the practice could increase rhino numbers (captive, but still) but would perpetuate the stupid myths.

Or the nations of Africa could go back to an earlier practice.

Some years back I met a gentleman of Afrikaner descent, an engineer with a Jo’Burg pharmaceutical company whose brother still maintained the family farm in the bush somewhere out east of the city.  He told me of an “understanding” the South African government had once had with the various safari companies, wherein the safari guides would shoot poachers on sight and nobody in the government would say too much about it.

Harsh?  Yes.  Effective?  I bet it was.

  • allen

    they need to make the synthetic horn and flood the market..but don’t tell anyone they’re doing it. let it go a year or more, enough to crash the price so much that it isn’t worth a bullet to kill a rhino.

    then go public..but tell people you’ve been doing it for more than 5 years. this will put into question the authenticity of any rhino horn someone may have in stock that’s less than 5 years old. the price of old horn will escalate, but new horn..no one will trust it, thus collapsing any demand.

    • An interesting idea. I’d prefer that people just grow up and stop believing in fairy tales, but I’m resigned to that being an inescapable part of human nature.

      • allen

        there will be a mythical status on old horn under my idea, true. but that supply will dwindle quickly.

        perhaps add to the scheme..sell “testing kits” that supposedly will show fake rhino horn from real…only it shows EVERYTHING as fake. disrupt the confidence in the supply, and the market crashes.