Project Details


Bioengineered wildlife products

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Project Twitter: @pembient

  • Environment & Sustainability

The illegal wildlife trade is the largest black market after drugs, arms and human trafficking, valued at $20 billion a year. Rhinos are among the hardest hit, with a record 1,214 slaughtered in South Africa in 2014, mainly to be sold in illegal markets in East Asia, where Rhino horns are believed to cure illness.

A number of organisations have been working to reduce poaching by deterring poachers, but a Seattle-based biotech startup Pembient has a radically different approach. 

“The idea is to “bio-fabricate” rhino horns out of keratin – the same material that fingernails and hair are made of – using 3D printing,” says Pembient’s CEO and co-founder Matthew Markus, explaining that the horns would be identical to the real thing on a “macroscopic, microscopic and molecular level.”

Markus believes that by flooding the market with synthetic horns that are priced at about one-eighth of the reported $60,000 per kilogram that a biological horn commands, prices will fall, curbing the economic incentive for poachers, and helping to protect rhinos. 

“We surveyed users of rhino horn and found that 45% of them would accept using rhino horn made from a lab. In comparison, only 15% said they would use water buffalo horn, the official substitute for rhino horn,” he adds. 

The approach is certainly controversial. Wildlife activists say that when China flooded the market with 73 tons of ivory in 2008, it fuelled the current elephant poaching crises, and that China’s legal tiger farms have stoked demand for wild tiger parts. 

The International Rhino Foundation and Save The Rhino International both say that “more than 90% of rhino horns in circulation are fake (mostly carved from buffalo horn or wood), but poaching rates continue to rise.” 

Only time will tell if Pembient’s idea works. Follow the latest developments via

Image courtesy of Susan E Adams

Last updated: 15th of September, 2015

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