Protected by armed guards, the last male northern white rhino’s valuable horn has been sawn off as black market rhino horns continue to be used as cancer remedies, aphrodisiacs and status symbols. The average horn fetches $100,000 per kilo on the black market, exceeding the market value of both gold and platinum.
Bioetech startup Pembient is working on a new way to combat wildlife poaching by leveraging advances in biotechnology to fabricate indistinguishable rhino horns. The keratin base structure – the proteins that make up skin, hair, horns and nails – is sourced or synthesised in the lab from yeast. Next, non-organic trace elements such as potassium, calcium and sulphur are added into the structure to pass any simple elemental analyses. They finally add rhino DNA markers to make it almost identical to the real thing. The resultant rhino horn powder is fed into a 3D printer as ‘ink’.
By flooding the market and driving down prices, CEO Matthew Markus hopes to save these creatures from almost certain extinction. The conservationist community is divided, with concerns that it might open up demand for the real thing. As efforts to stop the illegal wildlife trade have only had limited success, Markus believes this is the beginning of a powerful approach to combating illegal poaching.
Claire is an international producer/ director based in London. The South African spends most of her time making content in sub-Saharan Africa about tech, healthcare and gender.
Matthew Markus, Co-founder and CEO
USA (San Francisco)