Pound for pound, rhino horns are more valuable than gold or cocaine. On the black market, where horns are often shipped from Africa to Asia for use in traditional medicine, they can sell for $65,000 a kilo. That's bad news for rhinos, of course: This year is on track for a record number of poached animals. Last year, 1,215 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone.
A new startup called Pembient is attempting to tackle the problem through biotech. Using a little synthetic rhino horn DNA and a series of chemical reactions, they're able to create fake rhino horns that have the same genetic fingerprint as the real thing. The fake horns will be used in everything from rhino horn beer to rhino skin cream.
Here's an ad touting the skin cream to Vietnamese consumers who might otherwise buy actual rhino horn lotion:
Ultimately, Pembient plans to flood the market for rhino horn, undercutting the price poachers can get and forcing them out. "We're like the universal cutting agent," says Matthew Markus, CEO of Pembient. "In the drug trade, usually a cutting agent is something that's cheaper and inferior to the product being cut. But if we can offer something as good as the product being cut but vastly cheaper, then anyone in the trade will naturally gravitate to using our product."
Some nonprofits argue that looking identical is actually a bad thing, because law enforcement officials may not be able to tell if a product is poached or okay. So the company is also considering adding a DNA watermark to the fake horns that officials could use for identification.
Pembient is moving quickly to bring its fake horns to market, beginning with a partnership with one of Beijing's largest breweries to make a rhino horn beer that will launch later this year. (Rhino horn has a reputation as a hangover cure, and is already used—on a smaller, illegal scale—in homemade spirits). The startup also developed a skin care line it plans to spin off, and will supply the product to traditional medicine pharmacies in places like China. The synthetic rhino horn will be sold as a branded ingredient in other products, like the Gore-Tex of the Asian supplement market.
The product will be sold as a powder and in horn form. In the last couple of months, while in residence at the San Francisco-based biotech accelerator IndieBio, the company figured out how to 3-D print powder into the shape of horns.
"This market likes powders, pieces, and whole horns," says Markus. "Just like Silicion Valley people like laptops, cell phones, tablets…it's basically different forms, and we have an answer for each form."
Consumers have been receptive to the idea of lab-made rhino horn. In market research in Vietnam, the startup found that only 15% of people saw water buffalo horns—the current alternative—as a viable option, whereas 45% liked the idea of rhino horns from the lab. The startup believes it can convince the rest.
One argument they make to consumers is that traditional medicine once used animals that lived in a pristine environment—but that the environment is no longer clean. Some black market rhino horns even comes from taxidermy shops, where they can be contaminated with elements like arsenic.
"In the lab, we can control things, there's control, safety, high standards," says Markus. "We can actually create products that are more like the animals 2,000 years ago than the animals today."
Some nonprofits argue that a mass market product like this could increase demand for real rhino horns, but Markus disagrees. "If you look at artificial Christmas trees, they did not lead to a surge in real Christmas trees," he says. "The opposite happened." The same thing happened with fake fur, or when petroleum replaced whale oil.
"Demand reduction is important, but hard to do, especially when you're tackling so many things—not just rhino horn, but ivory, bear claw, shark fin, pangolin scales, tiger balm. And those traditions are 1,000 years old. If someone showed up in the United States and said the best way to save turkey is to ban Thanksgiving, that's not going to go over very well."
In addition to advocacy against real rhino horn, and better law enforcement, he thinks the fake option will help change the market. Advocacy and law enforcement alone aren't enough—after all, poaching increased a staggering 9,200% from 2007 to 2014 in South Africa, despite the best attempts of various organizations to stop it.
Next, Pembient hopes to tackle the problem of ivory. "If this was the 1800s, your shirt buttons would be ivory," he says. "We moved to plastic because it was more sustainable at the time—but of course plastic is not a great material. If you could have ivory buttons—or ivory whatever—without having elephants killed, it probably would be a better material to use."