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3D Printed Rhino Horns: A Severely Flawed Attempt at a Trafficking Solution

EcoBeat Staff – Rhino horns are one of the most valuable substances on the market in China and Vietnam due to their supposed health benefits. On average, just a singular pound of rhino horn can fetch a price of $30,000 according to the International Business Times. A report by WildAid found that a rhino was killed every 8 hours in South Africa during 2014 alone, that’s a total of 1,215 rhinos in one calendar year. Poaching has crushed global populations from 500,000 in 1900 to just 29,000 today, driving the value of rhino horns that much higher on the global black market.

Rhinos killed

In an effort to drive down the value of rhino horns, San Francisco-based firm, Pembient, plans to utilize 3D printing technology to create a substance that is genetically similar to that of a natural rhino horn (combination of keratin power and rhino DNA). According to PR Newswire, the firm has partnered with New Harvest and the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine at the University of Washington to crowdfund enough money to sequence the black rhino’s genome.

The idea is that if Pembient can flood the market with enough of these 3D printed horns, which cost little to make and have enough rhino DNA to mimic the health benefits, they will be able to drive down the overall value of horns. Pembient claims that a marketing study found that of those who use rhino horns, 45% would be willing to use lab created horns while only 15% would use a buffalo horn substitute.

While the concept is extremely innovative and technologically savvy, conservationists are calling foul on the project. Their list of concerns is extensive and worthy of serious consideration. To name just a few:

  1. 3D printing horns with small amounts of rhino DNA normalizes the practice of exploiting rhino horns as a resource for human consumption, reinforcing the cultural practices that caused this problem in the first place.
  2. By driving down the cost initially, the horns become accessible to those of lower incomes. This would result in increased demand, which has the potential to drive the price back up over time.
  3. Adding to point #2, the increased demand will make natural rhino horns that much more valuable. Having a lower-quality alternative will just make the real deal that much more exclusive.

When one considers these concerns, it becomes clear that the 3D printing of horns represents a short-sighted band aid for rhino horn trafficking and poaching. Value might decrease initially, but the project will likely fail to decrease demand. In fact, one could argue that Pembient’s full business model will further exploit the issue. The company is looking to create a beer that contains the rhino DNA because the horns are said to help cure hangovers. As the firm’s full plans come to light, they truly seem to be stimulating demand by creating expanded offerings of these rare products as opposed to fulfilling their supposed mission to bring down the black market of wildlife trafficking.

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