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Biotech startup creates fake rhino horn for new Chinese beer

Rhino horn is more valuable than cocaine on the black market.

Rhino horn is more valuable than cocaine on the black market.  (iStock)

A San Francisco biotech startup has an unusual solution to Africa's rhinoceros poaching problem: Flood the market with synthetic rhino horn.

Biotech firm Pembient has created a fake rhino horn that is genetically identical to the real thing by using the protein keratin and small amount of rhino DNA. From this chemical reaction, the company can produce a dried powder that is then 3-D printed into a horn-looking object.

As part of its first major initiative to help curb rhino poaching, Pembient is partnering with one of Beijing’s largest brewers to create a beer brewed with the faux rhino horn powder. Rhino beer is consumed as a hangover cure in China and  rhino horn is thought to have beauty enhancing properties and ability to counteract impotency. It’s more valuable than cocaine or gold with a single ounce fetching up to $5,000.

"We're like the universal cutting agent,"Matthew Markus, CEO of Pembient, told Fast Company. "In the drug trade, usually a cutting agent is something that's cheaper and inferior to the product being cut. But if we can offer something as good as the product being cut but vastly cheaper, then anyone in the trade will naturally gravitate to using our product."

According to Quartz, African rhinos could go extinct in the next 20 years due to the high demand in countries like China and Vietnam. Pembient does not plan to sell the synthetic horn directly to consumers, but rather plans to partner with cosmetic and pharmaceutical brands to release products made with the new substance.

Markus even argues that his synthetic product is be superior to horns from poachers, because rhinos may eat grasses contaminated with pollutants and that some horns on the black market come from taxidermy shops, which can contain harmful trace elements like arsenic. 

"In the lab, we can control things, there's control, safety, high standards," Markus told Fast Company. "We can actually create products that are more like the animals 2,000 years ago than the animals today."

But not everyone is onboard with the synthetic-product, anti-poaching scheme. 

Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation, told Quartz that this well-meaning initiative may actually have harmful long term effects to combating the illicit trade. 

"Selling synthetic horn does not reduce the demand for rhino horn [and] could lead to more poaching because it increases the demand for 'the real thing,'" said Ellis. 

"In addition, production of synthetic horn encourages its purported medicinal value, even though science does not support any medical benefits. And, importantly, questions arise as to how law enforcement authorities will be able to detect the difference between synthetic and real horn, especially if they are sold as powder or in manufactured products."