As It Happens

Artificial rhino horn will stamp out poaching trade, says biologist

Biologist Matthew Markus claims his synthetic rhino horns will put the poachers out of business, but his critics warn that he may also make it impossible for conservationists to save the species.
A dehorned rhino and her calf in their corral at a rhino orphanage in the Hluhluwe-IMfolozi Game Reserve in the KwaZulu Natal province South Africa. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell-File)

Matthew Markus is looking to horn in on the poaching business.

Last year more than a thousand rhinos were killed in South Africa just for their horns. The killings are illegal, driven largely by the market for some traditional Chinese medicines. 

But Markus says that in two years, his business will be able to satisfy that need without any deaths at all. His team of biologists is at work on a chemically-identical product — a synthetic material cooked up in a lab that can then transformed into horns by a 3-D printer. 

Matthew Markus spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off from Johannesburg, South Africa. Here is part of their conversation.

Matthew Markus says his artificial rhino horns will help save the endangered creatures — but critics believe they'll actually interfere with the important work of conservationists who are already trying to save them. (Courtesy of Matthew Markus)

Carol Off: Mr. Markus, just how similar is your synthetic rhino horn to the real thing?

Matthew Markus: Well, we like the term 'bio-fabricated' horn, 'cause obviously 'synthetic' connotes plastics, and what we're trying to do is biology. We started with a powder, and moved on to 'low-fidelity' solid prototypes of horn. They're bio-similar, but they're not bio-identical. So the next phase of development is to produce a bio-identical, solid horn.

CO: In layman's terms, how do you cook up some rhino horn?

MM: Basically, we 'characterized' the horn. We did what you would call 'proteo-mix' to understand the different keratins — that's a family of fibreless proteins found in the horn — and some of the other characteristics of horn. And then we would take the genes that coded for those different proteins, and insert them into a host organism — creating a genetically-modified organism to secrete those proteins. And then we would combine those proteins in the right ratios, and put them through a proprietary 3-D printing process to create solid horn.

CO: Why not just sell the material if that's what people are looking for? They're going to grind it up for medicines — why go through the process of making it look like it's a rhinoceros horn?

While it's indistinguishable from rhino horn, it will be priced much lower than rhino horn.- Matthew Markus

MM: A lot of people have focused on the medicinal uses of rhino horn. But there's also these carvings luxury uses of rhino horn. Research is starting to point to those being more the intake engine for poached horn.

A shop in Vietnam sells rhino horns. (Matthew Markus)

CO: You say you hope your product will save the rhinoceros by putting poachers out of business. How would you be able to stop poaching [with] the creation of this rhino horn?

MM: What we're trying to do is create a bio-fabricated horn market. While it's indistinguishable from rhino horn, it will be priced much lower than rhino horn. What we expect will happen is that bio-fabricated horn will move into the illicit market, because traders and illegal sellers will see an arbitrage opportunity to re-sell bio-fabricated horn as rhino horn.

What we expect is that bio-fabricated horn will be sold as wild horn. And that's actually good, because that's going to create uncertainty and disrupt the market.-Matthew Markus

CO: I guess the argument the conservationists are making is if you start creating synthetic or bio-fabricated horn, then the real thing will be impossible to weed out.

MM: What we expect is that bio-fabricated horn will be sold as wild horn. And that's actually good, because that's going to create uncertainty and disrupt the market. What we don't think will happen is wild horn being sold as bio-fabricated horn. Why would you do that? That's unprofitable. Some people may still try to sell wild horn as wild horn, but of course it's going to be much more profitable to sell bio-fabricated horn as wild horn. So why would you continue to do something that's less profitable than this reverse-laundering business?

CO: How soon do you think you're going to have your bio-fabricated horn on the market?

MM: We're targeting two years to get to this high-fidelity prototype. And from there we hope to push that horn out in bulk.

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Matthew Markus.


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