Will Synthetic Horns Save Rhinos?

The number of rhinos killed for their horns has risen dramatically over the past nine years in South Africa, from 13 to 1,175
The price of rhino horn can fetch up to $60,000 per kilogram.The price of rhino horn can fetch up to $60,000 per kilogram.

Pembient, a startup looking to end the appeal of poaching by flooding the market with synthetic rhino horn, is approaching something resembling a finished product that should be ready within two years.

Speaking to the BBC, CEO Matthew Markus said, "Earlier this year, we produced low fidelity prototypes; they are solids but they don't have all the properties of rhino horn and we are working now to produce these high quality bio-identical solids.

"The higher fidelity prototypes may take two years and that's unless all this flak scares investors off."

That flak comes from environmentalists concerned the strategy is "too risky" and will backfire, leading to more poaching.

WWF's Lee Henry said "in traditional medicines, people prefer wild products—that is seen as more valuable—they don't want products from farms or synthetic markets."

"For a species like rhino that are being decimated by poaching for their products, do we want to test this now? I think it's too big a risk to take. History has shown that when you create alternative products, it doesn't reduce demand for the genuine article."

The number of rhinos killed for their horns has risen dramatically over the past nine years. In 2007, just 13 rhinos were killed in South Africa. Last year, that number was 1,175.

"We are very concerned that these synthetic products would provide a cover for illegal trade," said Henry. "How are enforcement officers on the ground supposed to distinguish between the two?"

  Illicit Market

But for Markus, that inability to readily differentiate between his product and the real thing is exactly what he's hoping to achieve.

"This is an illicit market; these people are not supported by states, so here counterfeits especially if they are exactly the same should have a very disruptive effect.

"The only thing that guarantees that you are getting the product you think you are getting is the product itself, if you can destroy the uniqueness of that product through bio-fabrication, I think that's a win."

Markus acknowledges that his approach is not without risk, but he maintains that the synthetic model has been well scrutinized and is less of a threat than his opponents maintain.

Rhinoceroses have long been poached for their horns, which are sold as having scientifically flimsy medicinal and cosmetic benefits. The rhino’s status as an endangered species has led to prices hitting $60,000 per kilogram, higher than the price of cocaine, gold or diamonds.

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