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Biologist aims to grow synthetic rhino horns


A Seattle-based biotechnology startup that hopes to grow cruelty-free rhino horns in a laboratory to save the animal from poachers — and eventually from extinction — says it has already produced multiple batches of rhino horn powder.


© Roberto Schmidt/ AFP/ Getty Images

The first batch of powder was primarily protein-based and didn’t have any genetic components of a rhino, said Matthew Markus, a biologist and CEO of Pembient.

He took some of the chalky, greyish powder to Vietnam, a major consumer of rhino horns and its products, to see how regular users react to it. “I wanted to see whether or not (the powder) matched with what they were using for smell and texture … people were generally receptive.”

Since then, the company has produced additional batches which “now include genetic components of a rhino itself,” said Markus.

The company eventually wants to grow horns, he said, adding they are exploring different methods, including tissue engineering. “We want to produce horns in volume and create a system whereby it doesn’t make sense, economically, to poach … the product is better than the original — that is the long-term goal.”

A full horn is the trickiest of all and it could take a couple of years, he said. A horn is primarily made of keratin, found in hair and nails.

If all goes well, the company wants to grow elephant ivory and even tiger bones.

This idea has netted Markus and fellow biologist George Bonaci, his partner at Pembient, US$50 000 in cash and US$50,000 in intangibles such as laboratory space and equipment.

Markus said he has been told the idea is crazy, even risky, but he believes “it is something that needs to be tried” before it is too late to save rhinos.

Demand for poached rhino horn has never been higher. According to Save The Rhino, a U.K.-based agency that monitors rhino deaths, 1 215 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone in 2015 — more than three a day. In 2013, the country lost 1 004 rhinos to poachers, the agency said. South Africa has the largest population of rhinos in the wild.

Other countries with significant rhino populations don’t regularly publish statistics on poaching. But there are newspaper reports and press releases after major incidents. For instance, Kenya reported in early November that it had lost 39 rhinos to poaching since January.

This rhino killing spree in the past few years has coincided with Vietnam’s emerging economy, the increased purchasing power of its citizens and a rumour that a Vietnamese politician was cured of cancer by rhino horn powder.

For the nouveau riche, rhino horn is a status symbol.

A horn, which usually weighs about five kilograms, can sell for up to US$70 000 per kilogram in Vietnam, making it more expensive than cocaine and even gold.

But can fake horns and other products really halt poaching and save the rhinos? Markus believes it can. He points to the faux fur campaign that has helped other animals. “If we want to save rhinos, we need a lot of strategies.”

George Wittemyer, an assistant professor in the department of fish, wildlife and conservation biology at Colorado State University and an expert on elephants, points out that consumers in Southeast Asia don’t believe that horns from farmed rhino or synthesised horns have the same medicinal properties as that of wild rhinos. “One of the key components is that the wild rhino feeding on all sorts of plants across the landscape give the horn its medicinal properties.”

Rhinos are in a precarious place right now, said Wittemyer. “These are areas where we haven’t tread before so we should proceed cautiously but they are intriguing … it is something that needs a lot of thought.”

But Colman O’Criodain, a wildlife trade specialist with WWF International, is not convinced. “There is already a huge quantity of fake horn in circulation in Vietnam but that isn’t denting the poaching levels,” he said. “In general, we favour trying to change consumer behaviour rather than pandering to it. That is where we are currently directing our efforts.”

News Desk

A collection of current affairs articles and press releases from third party sources.

  • graeme pollock

    Any action to slow or halt the slaughter is good , but the missing ingredient here is the revenue needed to continue to protect and conserve the last of the rhino /Elephant , the sustainable harvest of horn from living rhino and its revenue returned to owners and protectors will finance the conservation of the rhino . It is estimated by pro use scientists that more than 2000 rhino horns could be sustainable harvested per year without one single rhino being killed . The fact that 1500 rhino horns entered the illegal market and financed the syndicates but deprived the owners and protectors from receiving these much needed funds, means the anti use are contributing to the declines and” keeping illegal rhino horn trade profitable.Is the species not more important than opinion of anti use.


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Jacis Lodges
Africa Geographic