Yes, They Are Trying to Make 3-D-Printed Rhino Horns

Growing bioengineered horns in a lab might sound like science fiction, but a Seattle start-up thinks it can stop the slaughter of the endangered animal.

(Photo: Martin Harvey/Getty Images)

Feb 26, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

The insatiable demand for the high-priced horns of rhinos has put survival of the animal in doubt. Not even baby rhinos, with their tiny keratin nubs, are safe from poaching. This week, a Zimbabwe wildlife ranger found two calves dead, their horns removed.

One of the calves was a nine-month-old male. His horn weighed less than a tenth of a pound—next to nothing—but with the black-market price for rhino horn around $30,000 per pound, it’s apparently worth the trouble. Last year, a record 1,215 rhinos were poached in South Africa alone—a drastic rise from seven years ago, when just 83 poaching incidents were reported. The horns are ground into powder and sold as traditional medicines in Vietnam, China, and other Asian countries.

Now the founders of a Seattle-based start-up called Pembient think they can grow rhino-free rhino horn in the laboratory. They’ve already started.

Matthew Markus, a Pembient cofounder, had the idea for bioengineering rhino horn about a decade ago, when he first heard of the poaching problem in Africa.

Pembient cofounders George Bonaci and Matthew Markus. (Photo courtesy of Pembient)


“The technology wasn’t really there at the time,” Markus said. “But I uncovered that notebook about a year ago, and we’ve been working on sort of reverse engineering rhino horn since.”

The team has already created faux rhino horn powder and is in the midst of building rhino horn replicas—investigating tissue engineering techniques and even the option of 3-D printing to create a fully formed horn.

Rhino horns are often carved into decorative pieces for the wealthy, but ground-up rhino horn powder is the ingredient in various traditional medicines. Though its ability to do everything from reduce fever to cure cancer has been widely debunked, rhino horn powder is in demand by a rising middle class in China and Vietnam.

“Many Western conservation organizations’ forms of education is to tell these groups, ‘Your ancestors were stupid,’ but they worship their ancestors,” Markus said. “Trying to Westernize their culture in an attempt to reduce demand might not be the best idea.”

A display case of rhino horns in Vietnam.
(Photo courtesy of Pembient)


His solution: Replace real rhino horn powder with a lab-grown alternative.

Markus and Pembient cofounder George Bonaci took their replica horn powder to Vietnam last year to get a sense of what the community thought about the product. In their survey, the team found that about 45 percent of rhino powder users would try out the cruelty-free alternative. In contrast, only 15 percent of people would consider using water buffalo horn, the current mainstream alternative.

Some conservationists worry that two rhino horn products on the market—Pembient’s and the higher-priced real rhino horn—would just give buyers more options, not cut demand.

“There is already a huge quantity of fake horn in circulation in Vietnam, but that isn’t denting the poaching levels,” Colman O’Criodain, a wildlife trade specialist with WWF International, told the Toronto Star. “In general, we favor trying to change consumer behavior rather than pandering to it. That is where we are currently directing our efforts.”

But Markus argues that providing a steady supply of faux rhino horn powder will keep prices low and cut into poachers’ profits.

“We know that creating a substitute product won’t eliminate poaching by itself, but it’s one piece we need to give a try,” he said.

On March 1, Pembient will be moving from its Seattle offices to San Francisco, where start-up accelerator Indie Bio is giving the group $50,000 and access to its lab to finalize its rhino horn substitute, which it hopes to unveil in June.

Once it gets rhino horns down, the team hopes to create alternative animal products such as elephant ivory, pangolin scales, and tiger bones.

“We know people are skeptical of this at first, but we believe in what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Markus said. “And we’re running out of time to do it.”