iStock/© Cay-Uwe
iStock/© Cay-Uwe

Pembient, a biotech startup that fabricates wildlife products, indicated that it can produce synthetic rhinoceros horn by means of 3D bioprinting. The company displayed samples at a demonstration day organized by IndieBio, a biotech accelerator that provides Pembient mentorship and laboratory space. During the demonstration day, which took place June 11, Pembient also announced a crowdfunding campaign to sequence the genome of the black rhinoceros and release it to the public domain.

Both initiatives are meant to preserve endangered rhinos. By manufacturing synthetic rhino horn, Pembient hopes to flood the market, disrupting the illicit trade by bringing prices below the levels that induce poaching. It is a relatively immediate solution to a pressing problem. According to Pembient, poaching has increased over 90-fold since 2007, a trend linked to rising standards of living in Asia, where rhino horn is prized as a traditional medicine and status symbol. It is estimated that only 5,055 black rhinos are still alive in the wild.

The genome sequencing project would contribute to longer-term solutions. A complete genome, said Pembient, would enhance the care, breeding, and tracking of the endangered black rhinoceros. In addition, it could even assist future researchers looking at ways to bring already extinct black rhino subspecies back to life.

Initially, Pembient was limited to producing rhino horn powder that was primarily protein based and lacked genetic material. The company then succeeded in creating a more realistic powder, one containing not just protein but also cellular material and other deposits. And now the company asserts it can print synthetic horn that is genetically and spectrographically similar to the real thing.

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

Pembient’s market-based solution is not without its critics. For example, two conservation organizations, the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) and Save the Rhino International, issued a joint statement opposing the manufacture, marketing, and sale of synthetic rhino horn.

“Selling synthetic horn does not reduce the demand for rhino horn or and could lead to more poaching because it increases the demand for ‘the real thing,’” said Susie Ellis, executive director of IRF. “In addition, production of synthetic horn encourages its purported medicinal value, even though science does not support any medical benefits. And, importantly, questions arise as to how law enforcement authorities will be able to detect the difference between synthetic and real horn, especially if they are sold as powder or in manufactured products.”

“Currently, 90% of the rhino horns in circulation are fake, but poaching rates continue to rise, so providing synthetic horn will not lower demand,” said Cathy Dean, director of Save the Rhino. “The manufacture of synthetic horn diverts attention from the real problem: unsustainable levels of rhino poaching.”

In the crowdsourcing project, one of Pembient’s partners is the University of Washington, which is pursuing a different way to curb poaching. University of Washington biologists led by Samuel Wasser, Ph.D., recently indicated that they have developed methods to extract DNA from elephant ivory, allowing the analysis of seized contraband, and the identification of the elephant populations from which the ivory originated. This information, the biologists said, could point law enforcement personnel to locations where poaching is rampant.

The researchers described their work June 18 in Science, in an article entitled, “Evidence from ivory DNA identifies two main elephant poaching hotspots.”

Previously, Dr. Wasser’s team used DNA from elephant dung, tissue, and hair collected across the African continent to map genetic signatures for regional populations. More recently, they have used their ivory-optimized techniques to examine archival samples of seized ivory. 

In the new paper, Dr. Wasser’s team used its method to analyze 28 large ivory seizures, each more than half a ton, made between 1996 and 2014. The samples include 61% of all large seizures made worldwide between 2012 and 2014.

“Results suggest that the major poaching hotspots in Africa may be currently concentrated in as few as two areas,” the paper’s authors wrote. “Increasing law enforcement in these two hotspots could help curtail future elephant losses across Africa and disrupt this organized transnational crime.”

“When you’re losing a tenth of the population a year, you have to do something more urgent—nail down where the major killing is happening and stop it at the source,” Dr. Wasser said. “Hopefully our results will force the primary source countries to accept more responsibility for their part in this illegal trade, encourage the international community to work closely with these countries to contain the poaching, and these actions will choke the criminal networks that enable this transnational organized crime to operate.”