The illegal wildlife trade is a massive business, and it’s killing thousands of endangered species every year. ( Rhino poaching )
Rhinos are among the hardest hit. The horns fetch high prices on the black market — up to $60,000 per pound, far more than the price of gold. They’re used to make elaborate carvings across East Asia and also believed to have curative properties in some traditional Eastern medicines, despite a lack of evidence.
Pembient, a Seattle-based biotech startup, is trying to solve the rhino poaching crisis with a 3D printer and some clever economics.
The idea is to “bio-fabricate” rhino horns out of keratin — the same material that fingernails and hair are made of — using 3D printing, Pembient’s CEO and cofounder, Matthew Markus, told Business Insider. Markus started Pembient in 2015 with George Bonaci, who’s now the VP of product.
The company was admitted toIndie.bio, a San Francisco-based accelerator for biotechnology companies, in January of last year.
A dire problem
While rhino poaching in South Africa, a global hotspot, has actually declined in recent months, the problem is still dire: 1,338 rhinos were killed in the country alone in 2015, up from just 13 in 2007, according to the IUCN.
The art and antiques market in China largely drives the problems, according to a paper published in the journal Biological Conservation. Most buyers in China purchase high-value rhino-horn carvings as “investments” and “collectible” items, anthropologist and the study’s lead author Yufang Gao wrote.
Pembient’s goal is to undercut this market by producing 3D-printed horns genetically identical to real ones on the “macroscopic, microscopic, and molecular” level, Markus said. The fabricated horns, once perfected, will look and feel so real that distinguishing them from the natural ones will be impossible.
These fabricated horns will eventually be sold as raw material to traditional carvers in Asia and used to produce high-value goods, like bracelets and combs, that fetch exorbitant prices on the black market. Because Pembient is still in its early stages, exact prices for the fabricated horns aren’t set yet.
Pembient’s strategy is a radical departure from the traditional demand-reduction approachespoused by conservationists. Reducing demand for rhino horn is “infeasible,” Markus said. “And it’s not really ethical either.”
“These practices are based on thousands of years of cultural tradition — they’re a lot older than Thanksgiving,” Markus added. “We can’t just tell them to stop.”
‘Flooding the market’
Instead of focusing on demand-reduction, Pembient wants to flood the market with cheap, bio-fabricated horns, to reduce the price across the board.
By pushing fabricated horns into the supply-chain at various points, Markus explained, people won’t know whether they’re buying real rhino horns or fake ones.
Here’s the important part: The fake horns are much cheaper to produce and as such, will be sold for a lower price. Ideally, the market will end up discounting every horn, because there won’t be a reliable way to determine whether the horn is real.
As the price of rhino horn gets cheaper, the incentives for poachers to slaughter rhinos will decline.
Pembient borrowed this idea from a concept in economics called Gresham’s Law, according to Markus.
While conservationists are mostly wary of Pembient’s approach, Markus pointed out a shift in mind-set recently.
“It would be rash to rule out the possibility that trade in synthetic rhinoceros horn could play a role in future conservation strategies,” TRAFFIC, a nonprofit that monitors the wildlife trade, wrote in a paper in April.
De-horning, another anti-poaching strategy where park rangers and veterinarians surgically remove rhino horns (the horn grows back), also brings up serious issues. Namely, what are you supposed to do with the horn after it’s been removed?
Markus thinks that Pembient’s strategy to drive down the price of rhino horn through abundance is a more effective strategy than demand reduction.
“If you cordon rhino horn off, you create this prohibition mindset,” Markus said. “And that engenders crime, corruption, and everything else that comes with a black market.”
Some conservationists, however, don’t agree.
The International Rhino Foundation and Save The Rhino International, NGOs dedicated to rhino conservation, pointed out that lots of the rhino horn fetching astronomical prices on the black market is already fake, and poaching is still a huge problem.
“More than 90% of ‘rhino horns’ in circulation are fake (mostly carved from buffalo horn or wood), but poaching rates continue to rise annually,” the organizations wrote in a joint statement, citing a TRAFFIC study. The statement also said that developing and marketing synthetic horns diverts attention from stopping rhino poaching, which is the “real problem.”
At the end of September, Markus said he will be attending the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to sit down with leading conservationists.
There, leading conservationists, as well as startups like Pembient, will continue to discuss the future of rhino conservation.
“While we both have the same goals,” Markus said. “There’s been a lot of friction.”
While Pembient is in a “relatively quiescent” period right now, according to Markus, the company would like to branch out into producing pangolin scales, elephant ivory, and other hard materials harvested from endangered species.