Wildlife poaching is the fourth largest illegal trade after drugs, firearms and human trafficking. Rhinos are one of the most frequently poached animals on the African continent, and they are killed for a single part of their body: their horns. In some Asian cultures, it is believed that the components of rhino horns can help cure different types of cancer, fevers, headaches, and other aliments. However, using rhino horns as a medical ingredient has never been sanctioned as a successful cure.
The demand for rhino horns is still incredibly high, and they sell for roughly “$30,000 per pound [whereas] gold, by comparison, is worth about $22,000 a pound.”
There are two species of rhinos that live in Africa: black and white rhinos. Black rhinos have been poached so much in recent years that their population has gone down roughly 97% since 1960; there are only about 22,000 black rhinos left. Black rhinos live predominately in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa
There are also three species of rhinos that live in Asia: the Javan and Sumatran rhinos in Indonesia, and the Greater-One Horned rhino that lives near the Eastern Himalayas.
Rhino horns are made out of keratin — the same material that makes up human fingernails. Since rhinos are poached solely for their horns, researchers have started to look for ways that would allow for the legal trade of keratin products without poaching. Trading or selling rhino horns has been illegal since 1977, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Many people believe that the substances in rhino horns specifically help treat medical aliments — despite being the exact same materials as fingernails — so in order to keep trade networks and demand afloat without harming wildlife, two biologists came up with the idea to grow rhino horns in a controlled lab.
Biologists Matthew Markus and George Bonaci founded a start-up organization called Pembient, based in Seattle.
Their goal is to grow rhino horns (for now, their products are ground into a powder) that will sell for lower levels than what is available on the black markets. As a result, their products will, ideally, help curb wildlife poaching and help conserve what few rhinos are still alive in the wild. They brought some of their product to Vietnam, where rhino horns are regularly traded, and consumers had positive feedback.
The process is more complicated than just producing keratin, because buys won’t want the product unless it is an exact replication of a true rhino horn. Other elements have to be added in, such as minerals and some rhino DNA. All the products, however, can be gathered and used without posing a direct, negative affect any living wildlife.
There is some pushback, with critics claiming that while artificial products will most likely sell, it will create a hierarchy within the rhino-horn trade. Upper classes will most likely become more willing to pay higher prices for authentic rhino horns because their possession will be seen as a power-symbol. While the intentions are there, it has the possibility to help fuel future poaching.
More information about the process of growing rhino horns is here.