Bioengineering startup Pembient aims to reduce demand for black-market rhino products by 3D-printing artificial horn – but wildlife groups remain sceptical

In a meeting room in an industrial area of San Francisco, Matthew Markus unpacks the contents of a small carved wooden box that depicts a rhinoceros with an impressive horn. Inside it are vials containing powder and small, hard-looking chunks. There are also what looks like miniature horns. “I term it conservation 2.0,” says Markus.

Markus is the co-founder of Pembient, a startup that aims to thwart the illegal wildlife trade by recreating animal products in the lab. It is starting with rhino horn but has plans for more complex materials such as elephant tusk. The hope is to produce rhino horn so biologically similar to wild horn – but at about one tenth of black market costs – that buyers and illegal traders will switch, thereby curtailing relentlessly increasing poaching levels. The mysterious box contains Pembient’s collection of prototypes. “We are working towards a bio-identical product by reverse-engineering rhino horn down to the smallest degree,” says Markus, who claims his version can be better than the real thing. “Our goal is that the only way you can tell the difference is that there will be pollutants in the wild horn.”

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Can we save the rhino from poachers with a 3D printer?