Rhinoceros poaching is often carried out to obtain the horn, which some people believe acts as an aphrodisiac and panacea. Now, researchers are designing artificially engineered horns in an effort to reduce killings of the animals.
Rhinoceros horns sell for as much as $300,000 each, providing a lucrative market for those who choose to hunt the animals. Pembient, a biotechnology research facility, is looking to save rhinos by creating artificial horns that resemble the natural material in essentially every way.
"We are leveraging advances in biotechnology to fabricate wildlife products, such as rhino horn and elephant ivory, at prices below the levels that induce poaching. Our goal is to replace the illegal wildlife trade, a $20B black market, the fourth largest after drug, arms, and human trafficking, with sustainable commerce," Pembient announced on its Web site.
Pembient makes the horns by 3D-printing them with keratin-based 'ink.' Keratin is a key component of our own hair and nails, but rhino horns contain a special kind of keratin. Scientists at Pembient figured out how to make this rhino keratin in the lab and even tossed some rhino DNA into the mix to make a kertain ink that even a DNA test would not be able to distinguish from real rhino horn material.
The western black rhino went extinct in 2011. The five remaining rhino species are all classified as either critically endangered or threatened on the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species.
If Pembient is successful, it will flood the black market with artificial rhino horn. This could have a twofold effect, making it impossible to tell the bioengineered horns from natural horns, and lowering the price of the horns, reducing the drive to poach the rare animals.
Vietnam is one of the largest markets for rhino horn, where a percentage of the population touts the idea that the substance can ward off the negative health effects of drinking alcohol, and cure cancers. There is also a major market for the products in China.
In South Africa, 1,215 rhinos were killed in 2014, a rate of one death every eight hours.
"This poaching is by no means isolated to South Africa, rhino poaching is surging across the entire African continent, and is a constant threat to the smaller rhino populations in Asia .... For example, in early November 2014, Kenya reported that it had lost 33 rhinos to poaching since the start of the year," Save the Rhino reported.
Stricter laws and better enforcement of regulations has resulted in rhino populations recovering slightly over the last few years. In 2010, 165 people were arrested for poaching rhinos, a number which rose to 386 arrests in 2014. However, the high prices criminals are able to get in the black market for the horns provides incentive for the use of high-technology devices to kill the animals and help elude capture by authorities.