The Anti-Poaching Idea That Is Totally Freaking Out Endangered Species Advocates

Mark Hay

A decade ago, a rhino’s odds of survival seemed to be improving. While centuries of hunting had driven them to the brink of extinction, by the 1990s conservation campaigns had blunted demand for their prized horns. For several years, South Africa, home to a huge rhino population, recorded just over a dozen poachings every year, as the black market price of rhino horns had fallen drastically. But over the last 10 years or so, new demand for horn has surged, with prices reportedly climbing higher than $60,000 per kilo, outstripping even the cost of gold. Poaching—in which the illegally hunted animals are often subdued and left to bleed to death after their horns are hacked off—has spiked accordingly.

South Africa, which does some of the best monitoring, recorded 122 rhinos poached in 2009, 688 in 2012, and 1,054 in 2016. “All of the numbers we’re reporting are probably a little bit low,” says Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation, “because there are a lot of corpses out there [wildlife] rangers don’t find.” Many countries also don’t keep thorough records of the number of rhinos killed on their land.

With the total number of rhinos in the low tens of thousands (and some species with just dozens of animals remaining), poaching’s resurgence could drive the pachyderms to extinction in decades. The resurgence in demand for the horn has mostly been traced to Vietnam, where it is used in elixirs to ward off cancer and hangovers and is generally seen as a status symbol.

Conservationists, faced with the challenge of chipping away at cultural demands for exotic animal products and the difficulty of guarding wild herds across vast lands, are struggling to beat back the trend. And they’re increasingly worried about a new dilemma: tech innovators hoping to disrupt the black market with decidedly nontraditional ideas. Some problems, it seems, are resistant to the cult of creative disruption, especially when the consequences of reckless experimentation could mean the end of a species.

In 2015, at least four companies—Cerato Tech, Pembient, Rhinoceros Horn LLC, and Stop Poaching through Synthetic Rhino Horns—started working to create convincing fake horns, ostensibly to flood the market, lower real horns’ value, and destroy incentives for poaching. These efforts initially drew a good deal of media attention. But so far, none of these companies have made much progress toward their goal. All but Pembient have been silent for at least a year and did not respond to requests to comment for this story. This lack of progress can’t just be blamed on stalled technological development. Rather, established players in the conservation world have roundly rejected synthetic horn strategies, arguing the concept is rooted in a poor understanding of black markets—and could even undermine more effective anti-poaching tactics.

Pembient founder Matthew Markus refuted these claims in a recent phone interview and in past comments, insisting that he has a better grasp on the realities of the rhino horn trade than his critics. Markus first toyed with disrupting the horn market with synthetics in the ’90s, after reading about the scale of the rhino-poaching problem. But the technology didn’t exist to create believable fakes yet, and as poaching began to decline the idea dropped off his radar. But when poaching surged again in the mid-2000s, Markus realized bioprinting, an emerging field blending 3D printing with organic materials, might be the key to realizing his vision. In 2015, Markus found support for his plan to manufacture faux rhino horns through IndieBio, a biotech incubator that provided cash and office space.

At its most basic, printing a rhino horn means forming keratin, the protein that makes up both rhino horns and human fingernails, into the right shape and consistency. Savvy black market buyers can check a horn’s authenticity by testing for rhino DNA or other trace minerals found in real horns, so Pembient wants to go so far as to manufacture strains of rhino DNA, and lace it and other residual minerals into the keratin.

In a 2015 Motherboard interview, one skeptical scientist estimated that producing believable, high-quality rhino-equivalent keratin could cost up to $3 billion per kilo, making synthetics utterly impractical. However, Markus argues that as bioprinting advances, prices are dropping quickly. “The prices you are attacking are just so outrageous, even if the technology is expensive to develop and deploy,” he says. “We’re already getting to a price-competitive situation with the black market for rhino horn.”

Bioprinting experts Niki Vermeulen and Will Shu of, respectively, the University of Edinburgh and University of Strathclyde also tell me they have their doubts about Markus’ ability to produce enough horn to impact the black market right now. And they both express concern about the legality of selling something that looks identical to a banned substance—a scenario they’ve explored for issues like organ printing—especially if Markus tries to pass off his wares to a buyer as real.

In 2015 Markus insisted that he’d figure out the science and legality within a year. He created a prototype using only commercially available wool keratin, which testers said was similar in taste and appearance to rhino horn. The original plan was to make a powder, sold clearly as a synthetic and mixed into beer and skin cream, and slated for release in late 2015. To be sold at a fraction of the price of actual horn, the hope was the synthetic would be a cheap alternative ingredient for manufacturers already using rhino powder, undercutting demand for actual horns. Markus doesn’t know how much faux horn he’d need to pump into the market to undercut poaching’s cost-benefit ratio, but he suggests it could take anything from 1,000 to 100,000 kilos. Two years ago, he predicted that by this year, he’d be mass releasing synthetic horn powder. In the past, he’s also floated the idea of dissuading poachers by providing whole synthetic horns to their communities, who could then sell the fakes to traffickers. For their part, Markus speculated, dealers would get greedy and start cutting their own true horn powder with synthetics to pad their profits, or replace real horn with fake stuff entirely.

The mere chance that Markus or some other company could pull off his plans freaked out rhino conservation experts. In collective statements, they fretted that synthetic horns could validate belief in the medicinal or luxury value of horn. “Legitimate” rhino horn goods, conservationists worried, could convince anyone who thought they were real that rhinos were no longer at risk, removing remaining stigmas on their use. As with cubic zirconia versus diamonds, people would still likely prefer the real stuff when they could get it, possibly creating a new premium for authentic goods. Together, these forces could increase overall demand. Conservationists also noted that synthetic horn companies showed little interest in using their profits to back other types of conservation.

These fears were especially pronounced with Pembient, as conservationists noted the beer and face creams the company had proposed putting fake horn into were novel products that wouldn’t even displace existing black-market items. “That’s just the polar opposite of the messages we’re trying to grow on the demand side,” said Ellis of the International Rhino Foundation.

“Fake fur and synthetic bear bile are interesting similar markets,” said wildlife criminologist Tanya Wyatt. But “arguably, neither have reduced the pressures on wildlife.”

Markus has clapped back hard at these critiques. In the past, he has cited fake fur to bolster his idea’s validity. He now insists a recent study has shown fake shark fin circulating in Chinese seafood markets reduced overall demand for the real thing, and that the same principle should apply to fake horn. At the same time, he asserts that demand is irrelevant anyway, and all that matters is pushing the price down by flooding the market. He doubts black market suppliers could detect his fakes or guarantee their buyers real horn reliably, as conservationists fear. But he says a DNA watermark could be developed for law enforcement to easily tell the difference between illicitly harvested and bioprinted horn.

Markus even goes beyond defending his project, attacking the value of traditional conservation tactics and claiming Pembient has already reduced poaching. “Some of the old-fashioned stuff does work,” he says of existing conservation efforts. “I mean, [guard] dogs seem to be a great deterrent. But [conservationists] have done a lot of things I would consider to be questionable, like around demand reduction.” Markus argues that many awareness and education campaigns have not been tested and may themselves have a boomerang effect, bolstering the market rather than nudging millennia-old cultures away from traditional uses. “I think at this point in time … [Pembient’s] intervention has probably had more thought and research behind it than any other,” he adds, stating conservationists should see him as a wakeup call to reevaluate their tactics.

Markus also thinks Pembient deserves credit for a dip in South African poaching numbers in 2015. “If you truly analyze the 2015 data, there’s no sign that any conservation tactics or other demand factors changed,” he says. “The only thing that happened that was abnormal was us.” Which is to say Markus believes news reports detailing his plan to flood the market with synthetics reached poachers, convincing them the value of their products would drop and leading them to abandon poaching, thereby saving some rhinos.

“I don’t think that statement is based in reality,” says Ellis. Poaching numbers are down in South Africa, she contends, because major monitored sites have increased security in response to the poaching revival. However, poachers have also moved to less monitored areas, where observers and conservationists may be missing carcasses, and to nations like Namibia and Zimbabwe with less proactive wildlife monitoring.

It’s not hard to poke holes into Markus’ broader logic, either. For one thing, the study he cites in which imitation shark fin lowered demand for real fin focuses on consumer concerns that eating the fake stuff would be less healthy. It’s not a transferable finding. And some conservation campaigns have reduced cultural demands, as when the market for Yemeni rhino horn-handled daggers was discouraged in the 1980s, helping lead to the drop in poaching during the ’90s and early aughts. The notion that Vietnamese demand for rhino horn is ancient and intractable seems to be patently false, too. The claims bolstering its use are very recent, according to some reports tracking claims of horn benefits back to rumors from the mid-aughts; one of the biggest problems seems to be local reticence to crack down on horn sales.

Ellis believes Markus’ logic is clouded by his personal investment in Pembient. She recalls a major environmental conference last year where Markus presented his latest plans and findings to a group of 100 major conservationists. “He simply cannot hear what the conservation community is saying,” she says. “Towards the end, people were actually standing up and pleading with him, ‘Please, don’t do this. Couldn’t you turn this [tech] towards something that’d really help humanity?’” Markus didn’t seem to listen, as Ellis remembers it, so the crowd began to walk out.

In turn, Markus insists conservationists have told him “off the record” that their ranks are not as uniform as it seems on this matter and encouraged him to move ahead. He admits, though, that the doubt he’s faced from conservationists has been a strong headwind against his work. “It’s a horrible business to pursue, honestly,” he said. “You have people with political clout who don’t like you. You have regulators who are putting up barriers to your progress.”

Markus’ plans to release beer and face cream containing powdered faux horn never panned out. Last year he backed off his rapid rollout plans, saying he couldn’t make it to market until 2018. Now, he tells me, he thinks he’ll be ready to sell at half of black market value by 2022. Markus claims he has interested buyers, but isn’t yet able to produce at the scales they’re asking of him. And shifting away from putting powders in consumer goods, his new plan is to create whole horns to be carved into luxury goods, like decorated cups or figurines, for the Chinese market. He says according to his research, this market is the actual driving source of demand, and that all carvers really want is a solid block of keratin to work with. But conservationists contacted for this story disagree, noting there is new interest in carvings in China, but that Vietnamese hangover cures still drive the most demand.

Perhaps most starkly illustrating his philosophical break from traditional conservation thinking, Markus doesn’t just want to displace the market for rhino horn. In fact, in a way he actually wants to expand the market, albeit for his own fake horns, rather than material cut from an animal.

“We want to make this material ubiquitous,” he says. “We just need to make sure that we focus on objects that could be used in the East, not that they will be used [there]. … We used to make a lot of things out of horn. … Horn is a very nice material. It’s environmentally friendly. It’s soft. It’s warm. It’s the plastic of the future.” Conservationists, as you may guess, are not wild about this idea, either.

According to Naomi Doak, head of conservation programs for United for Wildlife, it’s possible much of the controversy around synthetic rhino horns could have been avoided. If Markus had reached out to conservationists in the field, working with them to hone his technology or develop a responsible, tightly controlled pilot program (likely with an animal product less risky than rhino horn), things could have gone differently for Pembient. But by positioning himself as an aggressive outsider innovator, Markus put himself directly at odds with the goals and institutional knowledge of longtime conservationists. Playing the role of disruptor may be romantic—and in some contexts it can get results. But when the stakes of your experimentation are set at extinction, moving fast and breaking things can just be too much of a risk.