The rhino is one of many endangered species across Africa hunted by poachers who sell the animal’s body parts on the black market. Rhino horn is particularly desirable as a constituent in Asian medicines that supposedly cure just about everything from impotence to cancer, and many of these magnificent creatures are slaughtered purely for their horns which are worth more than gold per gram weight. Some animals are not killed outright but are left horribly deformed and injured when their horns are removed. It’s estimated that around three rhino are killed by poachers every day.
However, a solution to the animals’ plight could be in sight thanks to 3D print technology.
Spot the difference
A company in the US called Pembient has begun research into producing rhino horn artificially. By reverse-engineering the rhino horn this ambitious start-up hopes to create a bio-identical version that might even be purer and more pollutant-free than the real thing, making it cheaper and much more desirable on the market. It’s hoped that artificial rhino horn will thwart the poachers and replace the real thing in the same way as faux-fur has stemmed the animal pelt trade.
Rhino horn is primarily made of keratin just like hair, fingernails and animal hooves. Pembient’s intention is to use genetics to create a substance identical to real rhino horn. This material is then used as ‘bio-ink ‘ by a 3D printer and transformed into a horn. The product could also be produced in powdered form as it will be ground down for consumption anyway.
Pembient also hope to be able to make a similar product as a substitute for elephant tusk, although this will not be such a simple process as the tusk is a more complex structure.
The ethics of the Pembient project are viewed by some conservationists as questionable. They maintain that it is the consumer’s mindset and attitude to these ‘medicines’ that needs to be changed, and that purists will still insist on using the ‘genuine’ article, rather than a substitute. This will only serve to fuel the demand for real horn even more.
Only time will tell if this faux-horn will save the lives of African rhino, but perhaps in combination with a change of user attitude it will.
Image source: powerfulprimates.com