African rhinos could go extinct in the wild within 20 years. Demand for their horns—especially prized in Vietnam and China for their supposed medicinal powers—drove poachers to kill 1,215 rhinos in South Africa in 2014, a number that’s steadily risen the last seven years. But one biotech startup is hoping to dampen the $20 billion illegal wildlife trade with lab-made rhino horns. Its first product—a beer brewed with synthetic rhino horn—is expected to hit the Chinese market later this year.
San Francisco-based Pembient says it can now engineer a synthetic rhino horn that is genetically and spectrographically identical to the real thing. Using keratin, a type of fibrous protein, and a small amount of rhino DNA, the company can produce a dried powder that is 3D-printed into a solid material. Currently, the going rate for rhino horns is about $60,000 a kilogram. “We believe we can [produce a synthetic horn] at one-eighth of the price,” Pembient CEO Matthew Markus tells Quartz.
Pembient doesn’t intend to sell the raw material directly to consumers. Instead, it plans to use the lab-made horns to manufacture consumer products, such as lotions, beverages, and traditional medicines. Markus says the startup is working with a large brewery in Beijing and plans to release a beer brewed with the synthetic horn this fall.
Though Markus acknowledges the company won’t be able to fully displace the black market for rhino horns, he believes it can reduce the demand for such wildlife products by 10% to 40%. In a survey the company did in Vietnam in 2014, he said, 45% of 480 respondents said they would be willing to use lab-made rhino horn. In comparison, only 15% said they would be willing to use water buffalo horn as a substitute. “We feel like we’re on the right path,” he says.
Of course, being willing to use doesn’t mean they’d be willing to buy the eco-friendly alternative. Though some people seek out rhino horn believing it can cure cancer, the other big driver for poaching is rising wealth in Asia. A luxury item, the horn is used in both a designer party drug and hangover cure. It’s also not uncommon for people to give rhino horn as a gift or bribe.
But getting it means using the black market, an experience that Pembient is betting many would prefer to avoid. ”I think there’s definitely a desire for packaging and the expectations of safety a brand brings,” Markus says, adding that Asian consumers typically hold Western-made products in high regard because of the expected level of quality control.
And Pembient’s lab-made products, which might include elephant ivory and tiger bone in the future, have at least one other important advantage to the black market stuff, Markus says.
“We can produce a rhinoceros horn product that is actually more pure than what you can get from a wild animal,” he says. “Nowadays, they graze on pollution and pesticides. The rhinoceros of today is not necessarily the rhinoceros of a thousand years ago.”
Update: The conservation group International Rhino Foundation sent Quartz the following statement from its executive director Susie Ellis.
Selling synthetic horn does not reduce the demand for rhino horn [and] could lead to more poaching because it increases the demand for “the real thing.” In addition, production of synthetic horn encourages its purported medicinal value, even though science does not support any medical benefits. And, importantly, questions arise as to how law enforcement authorities will be able to detect the difference between synthetic and real horn, especially if they are sold as powder or in manufactured products.