Perhaps one of the most buzzed-about options of late comes from Seattle-based biotech company Pembient, which wants to 3D-print synthetic rhino horns to flood the market and lessen demand for the real thing.
The company claims to be reverse-engineering a fake rhino horn that is genetically identical to those from wild rhinos. Pembient’s hope is that by flooding the marketwith fake horn, demand for real horn will decline—it’s the e-cig of rhino horn, if you like—leading to a reduction in the astronomical rhino horn prices that fuel poaching in the first place.
But experts are skeptical that combating the rhino horn trade with faux horn disguised as the real stuff will quell demand, which is crucial to combating any destructive wildlife market. Conservation groups are concerned that any action to legitimize the trade will increase demand for the real product, leading to more poached rhinos—the same argument they’ve used against proposals to create a legal, regulated rhino horn market.
“Our position [is] it’s a creative idea but because of the nature of the market, there’s so much demand that increasing supply [with] the current conditions in Vietnam it would exacerbate the problem,” Rachel Kramer, a program officer at TRAFFIC, a global wildlife trade monitoring network partner of the World Wildlife Foundation, told me in March. “We don’t think it would have an impact on reducing poaching levels.”
Matthew Markus, a biologist and co-founder of Pembient, disagrees, citing how fake fur has played a role in demand reduction for the real thing, coal oil saved the whale, and fake Christmas trees have become the norm.
“We don’t feel we’re a silver bullet,” he told Motherboard. “We do think that alternatives play an important role in changing people’s behaviors and perceptions, though. It is a lot easier to modify a behavior then stop or prohibit one.”
Still, Pembient’s horn needs to pass the scrutiny of buyers looking for what is treated as a very rare luxury good. The scheme only works if consumers can’t tell or don’t mind the difference—and with the horns pulling up to $300,000 on the black market, you can bet they will be willing to drop a few bucks to verify the horns are legit. So how well does the manufactured horn stand up to those found in nature?