3D printers are becoming more commonplace, used to make everything from prosthetic limbs to concrete materials used in construction. While it’s been shown that these 3D-printed products can vastly improve the quality of human lives, they also have the potential to save lives in the animal kingdom. Now, the technology is being used to create fake rhino horns in an effort to flood the market and hopefully dissuade poachers as a result.
In the U.S., meat consumption is on the rise. In fact, research predicts that meat consumption will reach levels of more than 200 pounds annually per capita by 2018. But globally, rhinos aren’t killed for their meat. Although their population numbers only 30,000 worldwide, these creatures are hunted for their horns. Over the last decade, an estimated 7,245 African rhinos were killed by poachers. Considering the market value of their coveted horns — which can fetch more than $60,000 per pound — it’s unfortunately not surprising that they are a real target.
To save these animals, conservationists have tried to reduce the demand for rhino horns. But their efforts have not yet found a viable solution. Some African nations have decided to dehorn rhinos to discourage poachers, but this practice is actually dangerous for the rhinos and it’s one that has to be repeated every few years.
One Seattle-based startup called Pembient has come up with a way to produce artificial rhino horns using keratin (the main protein in rhino horns, as well as in human nails and hair) and rhino DNA. The combination results in a special 3D printing ink that can be used to create fake horns that are indistinguishable from the real thing. Pembient would then push these faux horns into the supply chain to lower the value of real horns, since consumers wouldn’t know whether their purchase was authentic or a fake. By lowering the cost associated with the horns, Pembient hopes to decrease the potential profits that motivate poachers to target the rhinos in the first place. Simply put, they want to flood the market to drive prices — and therefore, demand — down.
Although Pembient has yet to create the fully finished product, the replicas they have created hold a lot of promise. The company also plans to create 3D printed versions of elephant tusks, tiger bones, pangolin scales, and potentially other items that could help protect endangered species.
However, many conservationist organizations aren’t crazy about Pembient’s idea. The International Rhino Foundation and Save the Rhino International stress that selling synthetic rhino horns doesn’t actually reduce the overall demand. In addition, they assert that 90% of the rhino horns already in circulation are actually fake. These organizations also worry that flooding the market with synthetic rhino horn could remove the stigma about purchasing the horns illegally and could also give credibility to the notion that real rhino horns have medicinal value. While there’s no scientific basis for this, the horns are mainly used in medicinal applications in addition to decorative desires.
However, Pembient CEO and co-founder Matthew Markus notes that banning the practice completely could have even more dire consequences.
“If you cordon rhino horn off, you create this prohibition mindset,” Markus told Business Insider. “And that engenders crime, corruption, and everything else that comes with a black market.”
TRAFFIC, a non-profit organization that monitors wildlife trade, might be more open to Pembient’s approach. In 2015, they noted in a statement that “it would be rash to rule out the possibility that trade in synthetic rhino horn could play a role in future conservation strategies.” While the startup’s idea may not be perfect, it could be used in conjunction with other methods. And even conservationists agree that horn removal may do more harm than good. No matter what, both businesses and non-profits alike agree that action needs to be taken to protect these creatures from extinction. Whether high-tech methods will play a pivotal role in those efforts remains to be seen.