A California biotech company is 3D printing fake rhino horns that carry the same genetic make-up as the horns of severely threatened rhinos.

Pembient biotech uses keratin protein and rhino DNA to produce a dried powder which they then 3D print to look like original horns. They can sell their horns at a fraction of the price of real horns, undercutting poachers to force them out of the market. The biotech company plans to flood Chinese market with horns 8 times cheaper than real rhinos’ in an effort to curb poaching and the extinction of rhino species.

Conservation groups are concerned, saying that although Pembient may have good intentions, there is a danger that flooding the market with fake rhino horns could increase demand for real ones. The International Rhino Foundation’s executive director, Susie Ellis said: “Selling synthetic horn does not reduce the demand for rhino horn [and] could increase the demand for ‘the real thing’”.

I'm not so sure about that conservationist's prediction since the basic economics of demand elasticity would suggest that rhino horn consumption will increase as the price falls, and high cost suppliers (such as illegal poachers) should be driven out of the market.

Pembient’s bioengineering of wildlife products to replace poaching and conserve animal populations is a noble endeavour. But I wonder if connoisseurs of rhino horn will still favour real rhino horns. Maybe if 3D printing rhino horns is successful and reaches meaningful scale, only a small minority of the market will pay higher prices for authentic animal products. Or better yet, with Pembient biotech horns flooding the market there will be less incentive for people to poach rhinos.