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Can 3D Printing and Biotech End the Illegal Wildlife Trade?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Trade in illegal, endangered wildlife parts is a billion dollar industry. In Vietnam, endangered rhino horn can sell for $100,000 per kilo, making it worth more than gold. Those prices, and growing demand, have made the illegal wildlife trade the fourth largest black market in the world.

A new start up thinks they have the solution: flooding the market with 3D printed, bioengineered rhino horns.

A $20 Billion Black Market

Illegal wildlife trade is booming, threatening decades of conservation gains. At risk are some of the most vulnerable, but well-loved species. Poachers have taken to poisoning elephants for their ivory, for example. (Poison is cheaper and easier than shooting, I guess?) Rhino poaching in South Africa has increased by 7,700 percent over the past eight years, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

That growth is being driven almost entirely by increased demand from consumers -- consumers who think that animal parts can cure cancer, end impotence, or just make a hangover go away. The Endangered Species Act bans the trade of protected wildlife and wildlife products within the United States, while the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species bans the practice throughout the globe. Almost all countries are signatories to CITES (North Korea, Haiti, and the Holy See are hold outs), but enforcement can be difficult and expensive.

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed the Global Anti-Poaching Act which, if approved by the Senate, would place illegal wildlife trafficking in the same category as drug and weapons smuggling.

A Solution in Synthetics?

A San Francisco-based biotech start up thinks it has another solution. Pembient wants to leverage biotechnology to "fabricate wildlife products, such as rhino horn and elephant ivory, at prices below the levels that induce poaching." Pembient plans to start manufacturing synthetic rhino horn powder and hopes to someday 3D print full rhino horns and elephant ivory.

The synthetic wildlife parts would contain replicated rhino and elephant DNA, making them almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Those would then be dumped into the market, under cutting the value of real wildlife products.

Not everyone thinks Pembient has the right solution, however. Though the company claims 45 percent of the market would be open to synthetic products, Kent Redford, director for biodiversity analysis at the Wildlife Conservation Society, says the plan is "a well intentioned, poorly formed idea." Synthetic wildlife products would simply "create a two-tiered product market, where there's a wild product that's even more expensive."

Other conservationists worry that bioengineered synthetics will normalize illegal goods, making it more acceptable for people to use banned products and further expanding the market.

Whatever the solution to the illegal wildlife trade may be, it better come fast. Some rhino populations have declined by 96 percent over the recent decades and there remain under 30,000 wild rhinos today. At the current rate of decline, rhinos could be extinct within the next five to ten years.

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