Last Friday was World Rhino Day! Hadn’t heard of it? Me neither, so let’s all take a moment to enjoy the official image of WRD 2017:

If you have read or seen anything about the epidemic of rhinoceros poaching in Africa, which is driven disproportionately by Chinese demand for rhinoceros horn for medicinal and ornamental uses, it’s likely been from former NBA star and current cultural ambassador Yao Ming. In collaboration with San Francisco-based NGO WildAid, Yao has made it his personal crusade to raise awareness of poaching’s deleterious effect on Africa’s wild fauna. He even starred in a documentary on the subject a few years back:

WildAid, whose anti-poaching approach is laser-focused on decreasing demand for things like rhino horn, elephant tusk, and shark fin, has made lofty claims about the efficacy of such celebrity-driven campaigns. Program director John Baker tells Radii:

Our campaigns in China and Vietnam have already resulted in significant changes in awareness levels and attitudes: with an increase of 28% in the number of people in China who think poaching is a serious or very serious threat to rhinos, from 74% in 2012 to 94.6% in 2017.

WildAid says their latest campaign, a video for World Rhino Day, reached tens of millions of viewers.

The organization also lays foundation behind the scenes, says Baker. “In China, we work closely with the government in an effort to strengthen policies, regulations and enforcement. Much of this takes place in government briefings and working sessions, rather than in the public eye.” Their efforts also extend to the business sector, encouraging private enterprises to lead on tackling issues such as the transportation and distribution of poached substances.

Biosynthesized Rhino Horn

There is another, tech-driven solution to the problem of rhinoceros poaching being developed today: growing rhino horn in labs. The idea is to create an alternative product to feed to markets in China and Vietnam, where ornamental rhinoceros horns are especially prized and have fostered rich craft traditions, and where the substance is also used in traditional medicine.

Maitreya Buddha carved from rhinoceros horn (source)

One company working on this technology is Seattle-based Pembient, which recently launched an Initial Coin Offering to raise revenue. Pembient’s biofabricated rhino horn is meant purely for ornamental use — not for biomedical applications, nor to replace rhino horn use in TCM. Pembient founder Matthew Markus, who drifted from a math and computer science background to an interest in bioinformatics and statistical genetics, tells Radii:

The vast price differences between wildlife products and domesticated animal products have always shocked me. The high prices wildlife products command can drive “extinction vortices” in which the rarest animals become the most hunted. Many people think the answer to this problem is a prohibition on wildlife products. We believe that, in some cases, using biotechnology to grow exact counterfeits cheaply could work as well or better than prohibition.

Pembient’s initial approach involved harvesting the proteins found in rhino horn in microorganisms like yeast, then fusing these proteins together into a substance identical to rhino horn on a cellular level. This process yielded an end product less durable than naturally occurring horn, so Pembient is now working on a method that involves cultivating horn from rhinoceros stem cells.

Biochemist and entrepreneur Garrett Vygantas takes a similar approach with his company, Ceratotech. Vygantas became interested in rhino horn synthesis after a safari trip to Africa. He drew on his background in biochemistry to apply stem cell technologies to combat demand for hunted rhino horn.

“We are working to create actual rhino horn from actual rhino horn-producing cells, much like how physicians and scientists are working on human stem cells to create human heart muscle, trachea and neuronal cells to try to address various disease states,” Vygantas says.

The strategy of feeding demand with cheap, lab-made rhino horn has come under fire from NGOs like WildAid, who petitioned the Obama administration to ban it last February. “Our primary concern is that introducing synthetic rhino horn products and promoting them for the qualities such as a health tonic, disease cure, and precious carving substrate will only increase the demand for rhino horn products,” WildAid’s John Baker tells Radii. “By making such cheaper versions available, the number of uses will expand, such as new face creams, or even as an additive in beer.”

Related: 3D-printed rhino horns will be ready in two years, but will they save the rhinos?

Biofabricated rhino horn (Pembient)

Ceratotech’s Vygantas says that he and his colleagues “welcome the opportunity to work with WildAid and other conservation groups” to resolve their concerns, but firmly believes that his company’s product, once it reaches market, will satisfy rhino demand enough to curb the currently disastrous poaching rate. “What I see is data that rhino poaching is at an all time high and logically, every rhino that is poached brings the species that much closer to extinction,” he says.

Matthew Markus of Pembient is likewise betting that his company’s product will satisfy demand for rhino horn from craftsmen and artisans, adding that his company’s research “confirms that Chinese consumers view objects made from rhino horn as a good investment because these objects are scarce, portable, and presently unforgeable, similar to Bitcoin or gold.”

Pembient’s goal is to turn horn “from a niche material to a ubiquitous, environmentally-friendly bioplastic,” useful both as decorative material (“horn tiles covering whole walls”) and as an antidote to the disquieting creep of petroleum-based plastics. Markus says that his company’s recent ICO (a financial instrument which, like medicinal rhino horn, was recently banned in China) is an attempt to put their efforts in front of the eyes of artisans, designers and innovators fluent in the world of cryptocurrencies.

Rhinoceros wine vessel (206 BC–AD 9) at the National Museum of China

But this technology is still years away from yielding a product. Pembient’s Pembicoin, which is on offer through October 22 of this year, only becomes redeemable for biofabricated horn in 2022. Asked when they will be able to deliver a product to market, Ceratotech’s Vygantas replied, “We are in development phase and are actively seeking partners to join us on this quest so that we can accelerate our work.” And both companies lack WildAid’s core asset: a significant footprint in China — now the largest global market for rhino horn according to an independent study by the Elephant Action League conducted in July — and a foot in the door of the country’s notoriously opaque government bureaucracy.

As with many issues on our ecologically devastated planet, it looks like the future of the African rhinoceros hinges on a three-way race between technology, bureaucracy, and the brutal whims of natural biology. Hopefully a mutually sensible approach can be reached by some of these stakeholders so that we can continue celebrating World Rhino Day as a living tradition rather than a cautionary tale.

Cover photo: NBC News