Thursday, July 7, 2016

Artificial Rhinos?

Michael - Thursday

For the last few years, several start up biotechnology companies have been looking into the viability of making artificial rhino horn.  In recent years a company named Pembient has been making the running.  Its CEO, Matthew Marcus, has impressive credentials and the drive to make things happen.  Both their technology and their business model have evolved over the last couple of years.

What’s the point?  Matthew says the company is committed to saving the rhino by replacing the demand for real rhino horn – all taken from poached rhinos since there’s no legal market – with the artificial substitute.  His plan is to sell the product at around one eighth of the black market price in consumer countries – mainly Vietnam and China – thereby driving the price down to levels where poaching is no longer sufficiently lucrative to be viable against the conservation resources arrayed against it.  At the same time he hopes to make money for the company and possibly expand into other ‘replacement’ wildlife products such as ivory.

Two chunks of artificial horn
Here’s how it works.  Rhino horn is basically keratin as is hair and wool.  Their initial process used sheep’s wool to grow a look-alike horn material, which is indistinguishable from the real thing at a microscopic and even DNA level.  The latest technology uses yeasts coded with rhino DNA and keratin itself to provide an “ink” that a 3D printer can then convert into an actual horn in shape and color.  Not only is this the most valuable type of horn for medicinal products - because the consumer can actually see that it’s the real thing, but it can also be used for carvings and bracelets which are becoming popular with a well-heeled set in the east.  In December National Geographic reported on it.

The horn from wool process

I’ve worked on some of the dynamics describing what is happening to the white rhino population in South Africa and it’s not a happy story.  The Kruger National Park – the largest resource of rhinos left in the world - loses upwards of three rhinos per day, and surrounding private game reserves contribute to that also despite their smaller and more controllable area and generally better resources.  Poachers can sell a single horn for around US$15,000 and that's a huge amount of money in South Africa, about ten times what people living in these areas can make in a year.  That leaves a lot of money to buy information and accomplices and still have a very fat wallet.  With those sorts of stakes, the poaching will go on and as poachers are arrested or shot, others will take their places.  Some pessimistic predictions suggest that this year we may lose enough rhinos to cause the total population to start declining.  At that point the white rhino is heading for extinction.

The real thing for sale
So one would imagine that conservationists are delighted with the Pembient initiative.  Not so fast.  I said their business models had been changing and there’s a reason for that.  Some of the earlier ones seemed designed to actually increase the market.  One was a joint venture with a Chinese brewer to add artificial rhino horn to a line of beer.  (The horn is supposed to help with hangovers.)  Although it was going to be specified on the bottle that the horn was artificial, the concern is that it would reinforce the belief in the medicinal properties.  There was to be a similar face cream.  None of this went down well with the international NGOs working to save the rhino!

A summary of their arguments against the sale of artificial rhino horn is:
·         There is no evidence that the artificial horn will replace the real thing and it may just expand the market by making it affordable to a wider group of consumers;
·         It may reinforce the myths of the efficacy of the material;
·         Marketers will demand a premium for real wild horn, just as De Beers does for real diamonds over the synthetics;
·         How will law enforcement officers distinguish between them?

In February a petition was presented to the US Fish and Wildlife Service requesting the ban of the sale of artificial horn.  As far as I can discover, there hasn’t been a response to that as yet.

Pembient has reacted to all these arguments, and has moved its business model to the sale of complete horns from their 3D printer for carving purposes.  Of course, once the artificial horns are delivered, they can be used for anything.
It’s a complex issue and I don’t know the answer.  I can say that I think the present anti-poaching effort isn’t going to stem the tide.  Apparently the publicity campaigns in China have reduced the percentage of people who believe in the value of rhino horn as a medicine to below 50%.  Changing anyone’s mind about anything is pretty hard, so that’s a big achievement.  But 50% of China is still a lot of people...


  1. Michael, the first thing I thought of--this is NOT to say it is right--was that having scientists make artificial rhino horn would only add to its cache as a medicine and raise the price of the "100% organic" rhino horn. It is good news that publicity campaigns are working in China. Then there are those megabucks ego-maniacs that offer it to guests at parties because it is the ultimate in luxury goods. Let's start a rumor that consuming rhino horn causes one's skin to start flaking off and teeth to fall out. And the only then cure is to desist with the rhino horn and to obsessively read crime novels that take place in Africa.

    1. Yes, that's exactly the counter argument. At one point the rumor was spread that rhino horns had been poisoned. It didn't seem to help, and a South African TV program helpfully debunked it. Thanks for that.
      In fact CITES estimates that as much as 90% of horn sold is actually buffalo horn filled with wood. That only makes rich people pay more for the real thing. Exactly what you said.
      On the other hand, we need an answer that goes beyond the conventional...

  2. Having spent the past week in the midst of what is about as wild an area of the contiguous US states as remains, I appreciate even more what a serious threat all this poaching is to the continuation of the species. Ours as well as the rhinos. I think, Michael, that we need a clear-headed, analytical economic model for determining how best to employ this new technology in defense of the rhino. I say that because words and logic can be employed to argue both sides of the argument (artificial horn lessens/increases real horn demand) convincingly. That dance is something we see every day ad nauseam on political "news" shows world wide.

    1. I think you've put your finger on the issue, Jeff. The main issue is that the parameters of that model are all thumb sucks. I think it may be worth looking at models in other areas involving the illegal trade in banned substances, since these must have something relevant to our problem.

  3. Great, thoughtful article, Michael. It's such a tough issue. No easy answers.