If waves of cheap rhino horns 3D-printed with real rhino DNA are flooded onto the Asian markets, is this a form of rhino conservation or capitalistic exploitation? This critical question is gnawing at the root of a controversial business venture to use real rhino DNA in the commercial production of 3D-printed rhino horns.
In a sly turnaround of marketing tactics totally unworthy of American ethics and ideals, a new San Francisco-based biotech firm wants to mass market to Asians a cheap knock off of an Asian luxury item.
Hoping to strike it rich quick on the huge Asian mass market with cheap 3D prints of an illegal, albeit ludicrously lucrative, black market “luxury” item for which endangered animals are brazenly tortured and killed — can we really call this a conservation effort? Pembient, the originally Seattle-based biotech startup in question, has placed a big bet on the success of its exploitative capitalistic propaganda, er, I mean, innovative marketing campaign.
Better Than “Real” Rhino Horns?
“In the lab, we can control things, there’s control, safety, high standards,” said Pembient CEO Matthew Markus. “We can actually create products that are more like the animals 2,000 years ago than the animals today.” Markus stated, “We can produce a rhinoceros horn product that is actually more pure than what you can get from a wild animal.” He added, “Nowadays, they graze on pollution and pesticides. The rhinoceros of today is not necessarily the rhinoceros of a thousand years ago.”
Accepted in March of this year into IndieBio’s inaugural accelerator class, Pembient and 11 other companies from around the globe converged on IndieBio’s San Francisco office for 100 days. Helping them develop their products for the market, in June at the conclusion of the first 100 days, each firm received $50,000 in funding and access to IndieBio’s lab for an entire year.
Marcus acknowledged his company won’t be able to eradicate real rhino horns from the black market, where the current price for rhino horns is about $100,000 a kilogram. But Marcus believes his firm can reduce the demand for the real rhino horns by 10–40%. To do this, Pembient will sell its synthetic products at one-eighth the price of the real things, undercutting the poachers and thereby hopefully forcing them out of the market.
Planning to use its synthetic rhino horns to manufacture consumer products, Marcus says his startup will make lotions, beverages, and traditional medicines. “We’re like the universal cutting agent,” said Markus. “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.”
While in residence at IndieBio, the Pembient team lately accomplished 3D printing of powder into the shape of rhino horns. Using a fibrous protein called keratin, the same protein in human skin, hair and nails, the team inserts the keratin genes into yeast cells, which can rapidly reproduce the protein.
“Chemical modifications can then make the proteins align like those in rhino ivory,” Markus said. Adding a small amount of real rhino DNA, Pembient has now produced a dried “rhino” powder that Markus stated is genetically and spectrographically similar to real rhino horns.
“This market likes powders, pieces, and whole horns,” he said, “just like Silicion Valley people like laptops, cell phones, tablets…it’s basically different forms, and we have an answer for each form.” Marcus believes that “there’s definitely a desire for packaging and the expectations of safety a brand brings.” He pointed out that “Asian consumers typically hold Western-made products in high regard because of the expected level of quality control.”
In a 2014 survey of 480 respondents in Vietnam, 45% told Pembient they would be willing to use products from rhino horns engineered in a lab. Only 15% of the same respondents felt water buffalo horn was an acceptable substitute. Based on these results, Marcus said, “We feel like we’re on the right path.”
The Problem With Pembient’s Reality
“The idea could actually increase demand for real rhino horn,” said Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation. She noted, “For one, the company is making a new market for the horn, because it plans to put it into products that now use water buffalo horn, not rhino horn.” What’s more, Ellis pointed out, it “would create additional work for international customs agents, who would have to distinguish between the legal and illegal rhino keratin.”
Illegal rhino hunting is driven by skyrocketing demand for rhino horns in Asia. Seen as a status symbol in Vietnam, China, and many other Asian nations, Eastern medicine practitioners also regularly prescribe rhino horns in many therapies. Ellis related that rhino horns are used in preparations “as a blood cleanser, fever reducer, hangover cure and even cancer treatment, though there is absolutely no evidence that it has any medicinal value.”
Ellis added, “the production of this synthetic horn reinforces this idea that it has some medicinal value when there isn’t any evidence to support it.”
The Reality of Retailing Rhino Horns
“We have already established that – at the retail level – approximately 90% of the small pieces of rhino horn sold in the traditional Chinese medicine shops are fake,” stated Karl Amman in his extraordinary report, The Rhino and the Bling. “In Guangzhou, China,” Amman continued, “we filmed in a shop which had on display more rhino horns than are removed from Africa in a whole year. All of them were fake but advertised as the real thing.”
Amman clearly disagrees with Pembient’s strategy of reducing demand by flooding the market with more fake rhino horns. He noted, “Combine these facts with this latest development (rhino horn bangle bracelets as new status symbols) and we have a scenario where all economic theories regarding the demand and supply of rhino horn, go out of the window. If 90% of the retail market is already fake then the overall demand is a multiple of the horns coming out of Africa.”
“These new fashion accessories which seem to have come up almost overnight,” continued Amman, “appear to have become a major source of demand nobody thought of a year or two ago. … While what we saw was fake but being sold as the real thing. The question is what will come next? The drinking cups and tea sets are already on display in some places. Where and when will it stop?”
It won’t be stopping anytime soon, if Pembient jumps onto the Rhino Horn band wagon.
Pembient in the Crosshairs of Conservationists
Many rhino conservation organizations, including International Rhino Foundation, Save the Rhino, and WWF argue that flooding the market with more cheap synthetic rhino horns would actually do more harm than good. “It diverts attention away from more tested approaches to combat poaching,” said International Rhino Foundation Executive Director Susie Ellis. “For instance, when poaching was spiraling out of control in the 1980s, the United States threatened countries with sanctions, and poaching died down.”
Offering additional conservation strategies, Ellis said, “Funding and training more wildlife rangers, getting local communities to report poaching, convincing purchasers in Asia that the product is worthless and even evacuating rhinos to safer locations are all strategies that have been shown to work in the past.”
WWF International agrees. “There is already a huge quantity of fake horn in circulation in Vietnam, but that isn’t denting the poaching levels,” Colman O’Criodain, a wildlife trade specialist with WWF International, told the Toronto Star. “In general, we favor trying to change consumer behavior rather than pandering to it. That is where we are currently directing our efforts.”
The Current State of Rhino Conservation
“Ninety percent of the reported rhino horn in circulation right now is not real,” stated Ellis, “it’s buffalo horn or something else — but we still see poaching is just astronomically escalating.”
The International Rhino Foundation, a conservation and advocacy organization promoting rhino protection, reports that poaching is the main problem. South Africa has the largest population of rhinos in the wild. Last year, 1,215 rhinos were killed in South Africa, the center of poaching territory, compared to just 13 back in 2007. “In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, said Ellis, “crime syndicates from Mozambique cross the border, sneak into the park and slaughter several rhinos daily.”
According to Save The Rhino, a UK-based rhino conservation agency, in 2013 South Africa lost 1,004 rhinos to poachers. Kenya reported in late 2014 that it had lost 39 rhinos to poaching since the beginning of the year.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the black rhino population has declined by 97.6% since 1960. And only five individuals, all in captivity, are all that’s left of the northern white rhino.
The Fine Line Between Conservation and Exploitation
Sold by weight on the black market, rhino horns are more valuable than gold or cocaine. Pembient CEO Markus said, “2.2 lbs. (1 kilogram) of rhino horn can fetch up to $100,000 on the black market, creating a strong incentive for poaching.”
It sounds like a strong incentive for mass marketing fake rhino horns, too, doesn’t it.
Pembient, with its pie in the sky dreams stuffed with delicious rhino DNA, plans to make that pie and eat it, too. Creating fake rhino horn and mass marketing it as a powder supplement for facial creams is only just the beginning. Partnering with one of China’s largest breweries, Pembient plans to capitalize on the promotion of rhino horns as a cure for hangovers, launching a beer later this year that will get you drunk and cure your hangover, too.
Right. That’s a fine strategy for (not) saving rhinos — at the expense of human brain cells, livers, and pocket change.
But wait, there’s more! After the beer, Pembient stated that it plans to add pangolin scales, tiger bones, and elephant ivory exploitation to its mass marketing schemes. “If this was the 1800s, your shirt buttons would be ivory,” said Markus. “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.”
I have a real (live) bone to pick with this smart scientist. Why not just make bio-plastic and skip all the ethical issues surrounding (fake) elephant and rhino conservation strategies that are suspiciously soaking in greed? But arguing the fine line between conservation and exploitation with a marketing genius like Markus might prove as useless as arguing with a 7-year-old child.
When asked about reducing demand for unethical products, Markus had his replies ready.
“Demand reduction is important,” said Markus, “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.” He continued, “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.”
About the skyrocketing Asian demand for rhino horns, Markus replied, “Many Western conservation organizations’ forms of education is to tell these groups, ‘Your ancestors were stupid,’ but they worship their ancestors.” His followup? “Trying to Westernize their culture in an attempt to reduce demand might not be the best idea.”
When it was pointed out to Markus that some nonprofits argue that mass marketed products like his could increase demand for real rhino horns, Markus disagreed. “If you look at artificial Christmas trees, they did not lead to a surge in real Christmas trees,” he said, “the opposite happened.” He added that the same thing happened with fake fur, or when petroleum replaced whale oil.
Even a 7-year-old knows the difference between a fake and a live Christmas tree, and for this reason Wal-Mart sells far fewer fakes than the parking lot guys selling real ones. Exactly for this reason and many others, humans have exploited our forests to the point of no return. Anybody need me to go there about the commercial improvement of fossil fuel over whales? We could start with the effects of global warming on humans…
Finally, in a recent development, the Pembient team has lately announced they are sequencing the genome of the black rhino. Markus noted that other researchers will be able to access the genome, which Markus hopes will bring progress in both science and rhino conservation.
Personally, I may be a tad too skeptical by my nature to accept Pembient’s plan to sequence rhino DNA as a socially responsible scientific endeavor. It sounds a lot like asking Monsanto to help us save the genetic diversity of bananas. At the very least it sounds like asking the fox to guard the henhouse door. I was wondering where Pembient was getting the real DNA to supplement its 3D-printed rhino horns…
But Markus has a form of fake rhino horns for everything, and an answer for every question. “We know people are skeptical of this at first, but we believe in what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Markus said. “And we’re running out of time to do it.”
Is that because of the high rate of rhino deaths, or because the clock is ticking on Pembient’s one free year at IndieBio’s accelerator lab?
Rhino Deaths Are Now Overtaking Births in 2015
In a statement provided to me by email, Save the Rhino International Director Cathy Dean said:
“The most significant users in Vietnam, wealthy businessmen, want real rhino horn, to demonstrate their status and success. A second group, summarised as housewives, want rhino horn for its traditional use as a medicine to bring down fever; they won’t be interested in synthetic products.
“The danger is that synthetic horn will appeal to a third group, the “intenders”, those who would buy real rhino horn if only they could afford it. By creating a product designed to appeal to women – an entirely new consumer group – the makers of synthetic horn risk doubling the number of intenders, who will graduate to the real thing as soon as they earn enough.
“This is the year when overall numbers of rhinos are predicted to go into decline, when deaths from poaching and natural mortalities will overtake births. Our overriding fear is that, by creating new markets and user groups, the promotion of synthetic rhino horn will kill off Africa’s and Asia’s remaining rhinos even faster.”
The following YouTube video is only one of many gruesome examples of rhino poaching reality.
Please be aware, it’s not for sensitive viewers.
What Do You Think?
Do you like the idea of 3D rhino horns made with real rhino DNA? Should Pembient be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to proceed with its plans for mass marketing fake rhino horns in Asia? Am I too skeptical and over-reacting to this company’s capitalistic exploitation of rhino horns in the hypocritical name of rhino conservation?
What do you think?