US based bio-engineering firm, Pembient, is one of three companies that plans to flood Chinese and Vietnamese markets with synthetic 3D-printed rhino horn in an effort to stem the number of rhinos killed for their horns.

However, conservationists have widely criticised this scheme. “There is general horror at the idea,” says Cathy Dean, international director of the UK-based charity, Save the Rhino, which issued a joint statement with the International Rhino Foundation opposing the synthetic horn because of fears that it will “expand the market for such products, complicate law enforcement, and lead to more rhino killings”.

Rhino horn is made up primarily of keratin. Lab-engineered yeast cells can produce exactly same keratins in a similar approach to that being used to create new types of biofuels and medicines. The intention, according to Pembient co-founder and CEO, Matthew Markus, is to then flood Chinese and Vietnamese markets with both 3D-printed synthetic horns and powdered keratin in an attempt to bring down the price which, they hope, will curtail rampant poaching that has already seen rhino deaths in 2015 up 20% from last year’s record figures.

According to market research conducted in Vietnam earlier this year, of the 500 people surveyed who used rhino horn for medicinal purposes, 45% said they would accept the manufactured artefact instead of real horn.

“But in essence,” says Adam Welz of WildAid, a global organisation that works to reduce consumption by persuading consumers against buying wildlife products, “Pembient is promoting the same myth that the criminal syndicates are peddling – that rhino horn is a product that actually works.”

In this sense, selling synthetic horn could support consumers’ behaviour rather than trying to change it, which could set back ongoing efforts to educate buyers against buying rhino horn. Welz, whose organisation’s rallying cry is ‘when the buying stops the killing can too’ says “marketing artificial horn will undo all the hard work to reduce demand that WildAid has been conducting in China and Vietnam over the past two years” – a campaign that has involved celebrities like Jackie Chan and David Beckham.

Welz also points out that synthetic horn “creates a basis for comparison with the real product. In nearly every case, as has been seen with other wildlife products such as tiger bone, bear bile and ginseng, farmed or artificial products have created a higher demand for the real product where consumers are prepared to pay more.” Wild populations of tigers, bears and ginseng have all been decimated after farmed products became legal.

Welz highlights that whereas organisations like WildAid, Save The Rhino and International Rhino Foundation aim to end the demand for rhino horn completely, Pembient wants to nourish it. “It is not in their interests to sell products below cost to reduce demand.”