African rhinos could go extinct in the wild within 20 years. Demand for their horns—especially prized in Vietnam and China for their supposed medicinal powers—drove poachers to kill 1,215 rhinos in 2014, a number that’s steadily risen the last seven years. But one biotech startup is hoping to dampen the $20 billion illegal wildlife trade with lab-made rhino horns. Its first product—a beer brewed with synthetic rhino horn—is expected to hit the Chinese market later this year.
Will a synthetic horn save the species?
The good news is: Possibly… San Francisco-based Pembients ays it can now engineer a synthetic rhino horn that is genetically and spectrographically identical to the real thing. Using keratin, a type of fibrous protein, and a small amount of rhino DNA, the company can produce a dried powder that is 3D-printed into a solid material. Currently, the going rate for rhino horns is about $60,000 a kilogram. “We believe we can [produce a synthetic horn] at one-eighth of the price,” Pembient CEO Matthew Markus tells Quartz.
Though Markus acknowledges the company won’t be able to fully displace the black market for rhino horns, he believes it can reduce the demand for such wildlife products by 10% to 40%. In a survey the company did in Vietnam in 2014, he said, 45% of 480 respondents said they would be willing to use lab-made rhino horn. In comparison, only 15% said they would be willing to use water buffalo horn as a substitute. “We feel like we’re on the right path,” he says.
Of course, being willing to use doesn’t mean they’d be willing to buy the eco-friendly alternative. Though some people seek out rhino horn believing it can cure cancer, the other big driver for poaching is rising wealth in Asia. A luxury item, the horn is used in both a designer party drug and hangover cure. It’s also not uncommon for people to give rhino horn as a gift or bribe.
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