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Biotech start-up floods the black market with fake rhino horns

Biotech start-up Pembient is aiming to undercut illicit rhino poaching by flooding the black market with fake horns.

Rhino horns are one of the most valuable commodities on the black market fetching in around $3,000 per pound, down from $60,000 just a few years ago. Believed to hold curative properties for traditional Eastern medicine and used for the selling of trinkets and carvings across East Asia, these horns are sought out mercilessly by poachers, and conservationists are outnumbered in the fight to keep these majestic animals from extinction in the next century.

Restrictions on international travel in the height of Covid-19 severely dented revenue streams for anti-poaching fronts across the globe with the industry’s economic model largely dependent on tourist dollars to survive. As a result, illegal poaching spiked massively in hotspots Kenya and Zimbabwe over the month of May.

In the main, the number of slaughtered rhinos is decreasing year on year in South Africa and that gives us a glimmer of hope for the future, but one of a purported 27,000 to 30,000 remaining rhinos is still killed every 15 hours, and May’s surge has highlighted the need to combat poaching in savvier ways.

Stepping up to the plate is a biotech firm by the name of Pembient. Just two years into existence, the Seattle-based start-up has devised the blueprint for an ingenious economic dupe to stem the demand for rhino horns on the black market. The solution: to populate the black market with fake rhino horns. Granted, it may sound a little obvious, but the real brilliance comes from the scheme’s execution.

Containing the identical genetic makeup to real rhino horn, the counterfeit dummies will be bio-printed using keratin – the material that fingernails and hair are made from – and inserted into various points of the supply-chain of the art and antiques market in China, which reportedly makes up a huge part of the trade.

Because the indistinguishable fake horns are cheap and easy to produce, they could be sold at a lower price than the genuine thing, therefore driving the overall value of horns down across the board over time. If the market was to settle in such a way, the demand for horns would diminish and the risk would start to outweigh the reward for poachers across the continent.

Pointing to an economics concept called Gresham’s Law, Mathew Markus the CEO of Pembient stated: ‘If you cordon rhino horn off, you create this prohibition mindset, and that engenders crime, corruption, and everything else that comes with a black market.’

While many conservationists believe this is a novel idea, The International Rhino Foundation claim that around 90% of rhino horns in circulation are already fake, with buffalo horn and wood being two of the most common materials in circulation. At Thred, we’re very firmly in the first camp. Ruling out synthetic replicas as a feasible solution before even testing the waters just seems a little rash.

Pembient has created its own cryptocurrency called Pembicoin to gauge customer demand directly before a projected launch in 2022. For every one of these coins purchased, the buyer will earn a gram of biofabricated rhino horn. I guess we’ll see how popular that becomes in the next year.

Whether or not this plan has the credentials to succeed remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure… resting on our laurels at this crucial stage simply isn’t an option.