It's a seemingly crazy idea, but it's the mission of Pembient, the brainchild of two biologists who say that they have already used bioengineering techniques to create lab-grown rhino horn powder. Rhino horn is used as a traditional medicine in countries such as Vietnam and China, with proponents saying it can help cure everything from cancer to hangovers while working as a general detoxifying agent. That demand has led to record levels of rhino poaching, with 1215 killed in South Africa last year, up from 83 in 2008.
Rhino horns are primarily made of keratin, the same material that’s in your fingernails. Right now, the lab-grown alternative is little more than an idea, albeit one that has netted biologists Matthew Markus and George Bonaci $50,000 in funding and access to a laboratory for the next year.
That said, the team won’t yet go into detail about how, exactly, they plan to fabricate full rhino horns, though Markus says they’ve already created something resembling rhino horn powder.
“Saying it’s only keratin is a gross oversimplification of it, there’s lots of trace molecules and elements inside the horn, rhino DNA and other things,” Markus told me. “We’re trying a lot of different approaches, from bioengineering to using biochemical processes to isolate different proteins, adding in DNA and working from there.”
Pembient's collection of seized rhino horns. Image: Pembient
He said the team is starting with powder, but hopes to eventually make full horns. Markus has secured several actual, seized rhino horns to compare what the lab makes against natural rhino horn.
Can a substitute horn product actually help slow rhino poaching? There are many different theories about the best way to end or reduce poaching, but it’s clear that current tactics aren’t working. According to the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2007. In 2012, 668 were killed. Last year's total of 1215 was the seventh-straight record year in the country, and poaching rates are soaring throughout the rest of Africa, as well.
Much of the demand is driven by the growing upper class in China and Southeast Asia, and rhino horn is mainly a status symbol at this point, according to Kent Redford, director for biodiversity analysis and coordination at the Wildlife Conservation Society. With that in mind, who is going to actually want artificial rhino horn?
“The price is purposefully set high, and you want to pay that price because then you are seen by people as having spent that money,” Redford told me. Artificial rhino horn could “create a two-tiered product market, where there’s a wild product that’s even more expensive.”
“I applaud their attempts to address the issue. But this is a well intentioned, poorly formed idea,” he added. “I just don’t think it’s going to be found to be acceptable by the market.”
For an allegory, Redford noted that, in China, people are willing to pay more for wild tiger bone than they are for farmed tigers.
It’s also worth noting that Asia’s use of rhino horn isn’t straightforward or backed by sound science. Markus said it’s almost seen as a “magical compound” in Asia. Are people going to believe that the magic can be recreated in a lab?
Markus understands the criticism, and says that the team is going to be monitoring the market very closely—if they perceive that their product is doing harm to rhinos or not working, they say they’re willing to cut off production and focus on something else. He also says he’s met with experts in Vietnam and has run informal surveys about the demand for artificial rhino horn. Nearly half of those he spoke with said they’d use lab horns instead of actual rhino horns.
“We don't think this will be a silver bullet, we think it's a leg of a triangle to reverse a trend in poaching. You have law enforcement, you have a demand reduction strategy, and now we could be this alternative supply leg that's been absent,” he said. “Think about the fur industry—there’s laws about poaching, there’s demand reduction through groups like PETA, and then there’s synthetic furs. What’s missing in Asia is the availability of replica products.”
There’s not really a hell of a lot of time to figure out whether or not this is going to work. At the rate they’re dying, some have suggested rhinos will be extinct by 2020. One subspecies, the northern white rhino, has only five individuals remaining. Synthetic biology and bioengineering projects notoriously take a long time and cost a lot of money. Can Pembient even get a horn out in time to make a difference?
The company is funded, for now, and Markus says the team is working as fast as it can.
“If we wait, they'll be decimated by 2020 or 2025,” he said. “There is some pressure to try something new, right now.”