Can 3D-Printing Save Rhinos From Going Extinct?

Written by Lorraine Chow, and reprinted with permission from EcoWatch

With large-scale poaching causing the once-abundant rhino population to dip to extinction levels, one Seattle-based biotech startup has come up with a deceivingly simple idea to stave demand of the rhino’s coveted horns: fake it.

Current rhino population. According to Save the Rhino, there were 500,000 rhinos across Africa and Asia at the beginning of the 20th century. It dipped to 70,000 by 1970 and further plummeted to 29,000 in the wild today. Photo Credit: Save the Rhino

Current rhino population. According to Save the Rhino, there were 500,000 rhinos across Africa and Asia at the beginning of the 20th century. It dipped to 70,000 by 1970 and further plummeted to 29,000 in the wild today. Photo Credit: Save the Rhino

Pembient, founded earlier this year, is working with rhino horn powder in its labs in order to develop solid rhino horn substitutes, by “duplicating the cells, proteins and deposits in a rhino horn so the synthetic version is genetically similar to the real thing,” the Puget Sound Business Journal reported.

The fascinating part? They’re doing it by using 3D printing. Making something go from this …

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 2.12.12 PM

To this … (the one in the middle is the fake one)

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It’s unclear how exactly Pembient’s making the products, but as TechCrunch explained, “Rhino horns are composed of a specific kind of keratin protein. Pembient figured out the genetic code and was then able to reproduce the horns using the keratin in a 3D-printing technique.”

After Pembient CEO Matthew Markus showed a TechCrunch reporter one of their horn prototypes, Markus said, “You can’t physically tell the difference. No one looking at this could tell this wasn’t from a rhino. It’s the same thing. For all intents and purposes, this is a real rhino horn.”

Rhino horns are used in traditional Chinese medicine and are considered a cure-all for many types of illnesses, driving a devastating global black market. Pembient’s goal is to replace this illegal, $20 billion wildlife trade with fabricated wildlife products, such as rhino horn and elephant ivory, at prices below the levels that induce poaching.

“We surveyed users of rhino horn and found that 45 percent of them would accept using rhino horn made from a lab,” said Pembient. “In comparison, only 15 percent said they would use water buffalo horn, the official substitute for rhino horn.”

Markus also told New Scientist that Vietnamese rhino horn users have said that Pembient’s manufactured rhino powder has a similar smell and feel to wild rhino horns. If all goes to plan, the fake horns could be on the market by next fall at a tenth of the price of illegal ones, the publication reported.

However, conservationists have pointed out that the company’s plan doesn’t placate global demand for real rhino horns, especially in countries where it’s considered a status symbol to own one.

“The synthetic horns will not have an impact on current rhino horn users that want real horns from dead rhinos,” Douglas Hendrie, technical advisor at Education for Nature–Vietnam told New Scientist.

We’ve seen 3D printers do some pretty incredible things, from “printing” sustainable food to tackling plastic waste. Can this new technology help save the rhino?

Lead photo: A de-horned white rhino. Poachers have brought rhino populations to the edge of extinction. Credit: Shutterstock


Emma S.
Emma S.7 months ago

That’s a nice site you people are carrying out there.

Mark Donner
Mark Donner1 years ago

Best solution is just to bomb China and Vietnam with a military campaign (after saving the dogs first). A few nukes would make them change their minds about poaching. Throw in Japan in that bombing campaign, so that whales and dolphins can be saved.

.2 years ago

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus C2 years ago

Thank you for sharing

Mark V.
Mark Verbossche2 years ago

I had this idea quite a while ago and even contacted some 3D printer manufacturers to see if they could 3D print genetic substances into a 3D printed object, but I didn't get anywhere. Glad to see this may become a reality. At this point we need to do anything to save the Rhinos because unfortunately we can't rid the world of the vietnamese and chinese scum who don't care if they cause the extinction of wildlife.

Jennifer H.
Jennifer H2 years ago

To me, this almost seems to be condoning the use of rhino horn not stopping it. Not sure if I agree with this. If they are so dumb to accept fabricated horn, just sell the fake stuff in a chemical form and omit the shaping. What is the point?

Susan Griffiths
Susan G2 years ago

Anything that will help the rhino.

Anteater Ants
Anteater Ants2 years ago

Jessica may be right.

Miriam O.
Miriam AWAY S2 years ago

Thank you so much for sharing with us!

mari s.
Mari S2 years ago

Let's DO whatever it takes to SAVE the LIVES of rhinos, elephants, tigers, etc. -- these beautiful animals are NOT being protected properly -- poachers should be nowhere near these animals YET they're being let in! It's horrible, it's cruel, it's unconscionable, it's irrational, it's merciless, it's hateful! LET'S GIVE THIS IDEA A TRY -- send these "printed" horns out into the market -- the lives of these wonderful animals are at stake! [I bet the same result will be gotten whether synthetic or real horn is ingested.] I feel so very sorry for these animals -- they suffer terribly, they die -- how they're being left out there vulnerable, at the mercy of .... PLEASE, let's help them!