3D Printed Rhino Horn: Conservation Haven or Black Market Gold Mine?

[Image: Courteys of Alexander McQueen except Blue embellished horns by David Alford Harare]
[Image: Courteys of Alexander McQueen except Blue embellished horns by David Alford Harare]

Horns are no stranger to fashion, and we don’t mean their wicked antiques mentioned earlier in this series. Ask the likes of David Alford Harare or Alexander McQueen, horns give any line the right mix of danger, avant-garde design and playfulness. However, not all the horns in this industry are saintly. On the contrary, they’re part of dark cartel that fuels the destruction of natural habitats, even bringing species to the brink of extinction. One species that sadly knows this too well is the Rhinoceros.

The high price of fashion [Image: Reuters]
The high price of fashion [Image: Reuters]

In parts of Asia, the rhino horn is a prized possession and a symbol of status. It plays an important role in many Asian cultures from being an apparent cancer cure and traditional Eastern Medicine beliefs (many of which are unproven to actually work) to designer party drug, elaborate carvings and jewellery. Authentic rhinoceros jewellery –expressly – is also considered to be the optimum status symbol of a massive disposable income to the owner’s community. For that reason, a horn can easily go for USD $60,000 per kilogram on the black market. That’s way above what cocaine, gold or heroin fetches these days. Chinese tourists to Vietnam, a craft village 30km outside Hanoi to be precise, are even known to pay $15,000 for one rhino horn prayer bead bracelet. Jewellery that is regrettably being sold in broad daylight; no compunction in sight. Sadder still, Kenya has played a part in pushing this gentle giant to endangered status. Karl Ammann, in a National Geographic investigative piece discovered that rhinos killed in Africa have their horns smuggled out particularly through Kenya, disguised as wood.

A pair of Kenyan rhinoceros horns circa May 1964 length 28.5 cm and 15 cm. Estimate USD$15,000 to $20,000. Sold for USD $74,750 [Image: Alain R Truong]
A pair of Kenyan rhinoceros horns circa May 1964 length 28.5 cm and 15 cm. Estimate USD$15,000 to $20,000. Sold for USD $74,750 [Image: Alain R Truong]

And the effect of such a hefty price-tag has seen rhino numbers dwindle down from 500,000 at the turn of the century to just 29,000 worldwide. Of notable concern, South Africa’s numbers over the past couple of years have shot off the charts; from a few dozen in 2008 to 1,200 being killed between 2012 to date. In a report by Aljazeera, they claimed that “[e]very night in the Kruger National Park, home to the world’s largest population of rhino, two or three animals are shot by poachers.” That’s really scary news considering 85% of the planet’s rhinos can be found in South Africa. At the rate of poaching in that region, it’s believed that the animal could possibly be extinct by the year 2032.

Rhino Poaching Statistics Dec2013 [Image: Indiegogo
Rhino Poaching Statistics Dec2013 [Image: Indiegogo]

The thing about rhino horn is that it doesn’t actually have ivory in it. Instead, it is made up of the non-living product called keratin. Yes, the same stuff that makes our hair and fingernails, or animal hooves. Hence Pembient, a biotech start-up from Seattle, wants to fabricate genetically genuine rhino horn through 3D printed biotechnology. However, they also want to take the drastically different approach of flooding the market with these synthetic horns to bring down their market prices; which is a major incentive for poaching in the first place.  These horns will also include real rhino DNA, making them indistinguishable from the real thing even at lab-test level. Another reason why Matthew Markus, CEO of biotech Pembient, started this initiative is because previous methods have been unsuccessful since this practice is tied to deeply-rooted cultural tradition. The video below explains a little more about the 3D printing project:


I’m sure after that video, you may have a few questions. We’ve already established that they’ve isolated what the rhino keratin gene is but what does traces of real rhino really mean?? We’re not going to pretend to be scientists here, so to understand what the folks at Pembient are doing to make a genetically identical horn, we’re going to refer you to this article (click here) that manages to break down the scientific jargon quite nicely. In the beginning, the company had considered selling the synthetic rhino horn as powder and even had interested companies who wanted it to mix into commercial merchandises such as beer and skin cream for the East Asian market. However they’ve settled on focusing on creating the large intact horns since it’s “what the market really desires” because it’s used as an authenticity marker. That, and because they’re getting negative feedback from several rhino conservation organisations.

Jewllery made from Horn being sold in Vietnam [Image: BuyNoRhino]
Jewelry made from Horn being sold in Vietnam [Image: BuyNoRhino]

The horn of contention for many organisation is that flooding the market won’t quell the demand for rhino horns, but instead create a larger demand; introducing additional customers who hadn’t even considered rhino horn before. It’s the same reason the South African’s controversial government plan of offloading their billion dollar worth stock-pile of horns into the market with the intention of saving the existing rhinos hasn’t received wide international support. Another example is the synthetic diamond meant to stop the blood diamond market.

Black Rhino is even more expensive [Image: Buy No Rhino]
Black Rhino is even more expensive [Image: Buy No Rhino]

Lab grown gems may be fundamentally identical to real gems, but that doesn’t reflect in their market attractiveness. Their presence in the market has only managed to create a grading hierarchy, which puts authentic right on top. Because dealers have to tell customers that they are synthetic, the real diamonds are fewer in the market, the latter are primed as more valuable, allowing companies such as Rio Tinto that deal with the real deal to rake in massive profits.

Checking to see it's real rhino horn [Image: Buy No Rhino]
Checking to see it’s real rhino horn [Image: Buy No Rhino]

Then there’s the disappointing result of commercial farming of rhino horns. Unlike elephant tusks, rhinos can regenerate their horns; provided that you don’t shave too close to the head. Rhino farmers will dart their ‘livestock’ and then saw off the horn end using an electric saw. In theory, everybody should win because the market gets a horn and the animal keeps living. Yet as Douglas Hendrie, manager of the wildlife crime and investigations unit for conservation group Education for Nature – Vietnam confirms, “[t]here’s very little, if any, relief on wild populations when we see commercial farming develop or commercial trade of a protected species. The wild trade continues right alongside.”

Humanely sawed-off rhino-tip at Lewa wildlife conservancy  [Image: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty]
Humanely sawed-off rhino-tip at Lewa wildlife conservancy [Image: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty]

Organisations such as the African Wildlife Foundation, The International Rhino Foundation (IRF) and Save the Rhino International (SRI) haven’t stayed silent. On the contrary, they’ve published lists on why it’s a bad idea for Pembient – and three other companies – to make synthetic rhino horn, elephant ivory, pangolin scales or lion bones:

  • It will encourage the myths and medicinal beliefs tied to rhino horns and increase poaching.
  • Flooding the market could normalise the possession of horns, removing the stigma associated with poached products.
  • The fact that poaching rises annually despite the fact that 90% of alleged rhino horns in the market are actually fakes made from wood or buffalo horn.
  • Because it will take 2 years before it will be in the market, it’s a distant future solution and won’t stop poaching now.
  • Distinguishing between the real and the fake rhino horns will be difficult if not impossible, making it hard for law enforcers to do their job.
  • The four companies are allegedly reluctant to commit their profits to fight the root cause of poaching such as changing the mind-set in East-Asia via
  • Synthetic horn would effectively counteract any effort made so far to educate the existing customers and consumers on why they shouldn’t buy horns, a move that most activists actually support. By adding in the message that there are good and bad horns the clarity of the poaching message is lost and thus the support to end poaching.


Regardless of this feedback, Pembient is still convinced that bio-fabricating horns will be a step in the right direction to dismantle the trade. In order to establish a legitimate bio-fabricated horn market, Pembient intends to marks its horns with a DNA watermark that will only be available to trusted law enforcement agencies; in order to continue the good fight.

[Image: Seeker Network]
[Image: Seeker Network]

Whether the solution lies in a synthetic product or not is yet to be determined. We’ll leave you with the “Rhinos are Unicorns, but their Horns aren’t Magic” video from Animalogic that touches a little on the evolution of the rhino as well as the efforts that have been made so far to try and save the rhino in Kenya, the African Continent as a whole and overseas. (You can jump to minute 5 if you want to get straight to the save the rhino information). However, we are left with the question: if rhino horns remain culturally engraved, yet most solutions have naysayer shooting them down… what then is the right approach to save the rhino? And what is fashion’s role in the entire process?


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