Lab-grown rhino horn could undermine black market, save species

ON THE black market, rhino horns are more valuable than their weight in gold or cocaine.

 A member of a rhino-translocation team at Lewa wildlife conservancy holds on to the sawn-off tip of a rhino horn. Source: AFP
A member of a rhino-translocation team at Lewa wildlife conservancy holds on to the sawn-off tip of a rhino horn. Source: AFP

The high demand from herbal medicine markets in Asia is fuelling the astronomical price of the animal’s horn and could very well cause the extinction of the rhinoceros. But one company thinks it has the answer to save the species.

A San Francisco biotech company called Pembient has managed to use the synthesised DNA of a rhino to successfully 3D print a horn with the same “genetic fingerprint” of the original.

The idea is to print a whole bunch and flood the Chinese and Vietnamese markets with cheaper horns, which will undercut poachers and bring down demand, saving countless rhinos in the process.

“We are leveraging advances in biotechnology to fabricate wildlife products, such as rhino horn and elephant ivory, at prices below the levels that induce poaching,” the company’s website says. “Our goal is to replace the illegal wildlife trade — a $20 billion black market, the fourth largest after drug, arms, and human trafficking — with sustainable commerce.”

The company is in a rush to bring their fake horns to market and they are hoping to release a rhino horn beer into the Chinese market later this year.

Given the rate of poaching, it’s no surprise the company is in such a hurry. In South Africa, home to 80 per cent of Africa’s rhino population, 1215 rhinos were killed in 2014. The rate of rhino poaching has increased 30-fold in the past decade and as a result, three of the five surviving rhino species are critically endangered.

A rhino survivor, undergoes surgery Monday, June 8, 2015.

In countries such as China and Vietnam, rhino horn is used as a lifestyle drug and it is commonly believed to posses benefits that can cure health problems, ranging from hangovers to cancer.

It is this cultural belief that means rhino horns will fetch up to $US65,000 ($A83,500) per kilo on the black market.

Pembient chief executive officer Matthew Markus believes tackling the huge financial incentives for poachers could provide the desperately needed solution to the problem.

“We’re like the universal cutting agent,” he told online magazine CoExist.

However unlike dealers who “cut” a particular drug with a lower-grade substitute, Mr Markus hopes their version of the rhino horn will be higher quality and more reliable.

“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,” he said.

If this proves to be the case, the company believes they will significantly dent the poaching activities that fuel the trade.

It’s just a matter of marketability, and the company has already produced a commercial to be run in Vietnam touting the benefits of the lab-grown version. The commercial, called Essence of Rhino Horn, is for a skin cream and can be watched below.

But not everyone is so sure that the Asian markets will respond positively to the 3D-printed rhino horn and conservationists have worried it could even bolster demand for the real thing.

“There is already a huge amount of fake horn in circulation, of varying quality, that hasn’t dented demand,” World Wildlife Fund trade expert Dr Colman O’ Criodain told CNN.

“Many people who want it have trusted suppliers and want it to have come from living rhinos.”

Susie Ellis from the International Rhino Foundation has also raised concerns about the impact the company could have on the market. She believes the production of the fake horns encourages belief in the purported medicinal value, which lacks any scientific basis, and thus could increase overall demand.

The product will be sold as both a powder and as a physical horn but in response to concerns, the company is considering adding a DNA watermark to enable authorities to tell the product apart from the poached version.

While the end result of bringing the 3D-printed horn onto the mass market remains to be seen, the intentions are noble and the science is equally impressive.

It is only recently that the necessary expertise and techniques have been available to attempt such a feat.

“The cost of sequencing genomes has come way down, as has the synthesis of DNA … which makes some of these products feasible,” Mr Markus told CNN.

Pembient hopes to help save an endangered species and bring down a lucrative black market trade — all while making a buck in the process. It is this lofty ambition that has garnered widespread attention for the US-based company in recent weeks.

Post published in: Africa News

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