I wrote a (very) short piece for the November 2015 issue of Smithsonian Magazine about people who are trying to save rhinos from being poached with some seriously creative ideas. In all honesty, I wasn't happy with the final result - it was my research and my quotes but not my writing. Nor did it really include everything I felt should be in there. So I'm posting my original draft, which I was much happier about.
What if you could make a perfect biological copy of a rhino horn? That idea bounced around Matthew Markus’s brain as he pursued his computer science courses at the University of Illinois. It was the early 1990s and Africa was experiencing a devastating wave of rhino poaching. He saw how easy it was to copy and share software. So why couldn’t he make copies of a rhino horn, flood the market with them and put poachers out of business? The concept intrigued him, but it would have to wait. Full genomic sequencing remained years off and was beyond expensive. Markus shelved his idea and moved on to other pursuits.
The poachers, however, did not move on and the slaughter continued. As recently as a century ago, 500,000 rhinos crashed through Asian underbrush and African grasslands. Now, fewer than 30 thousand remain worldwide. Of the five species of rhino, four are considered vulnerable or critically endangered. The fifth, the white rhino, is listed as “near threatened.” Their precipitous drop in numbers can be almost entirely attributed to poaching and the incredibly lucrative illegal rhino horn trade. Horns - valued as status symbols in Vietnam, hangover cures in China and dagger handles in Yemen - gross between $63 and $192 million annually, selling for at least $65,000 per kilogram. If the average weight of a rhino horn is three to four kilograms, it’s no surprise that these animals are such tempting targets. In South Africa alone, poachers killed over 1200 rhinos in 2014 and 2015 is currently on track to be just as bad.
While wildlife rangers, military and the international community have increased their efforts to protect rhinos, the problem remains intractable. Bribery and corruption are rampant and the penalties for poaching are minimal. Additionally, modern-day poachers are the same types of people that traffic in drugs, weapons and humans: They’re well-armed, well-funded and well-connected to international criminal organizations. The effort to stop them has led to some unconventional solutions.
The Rhino Rescue Project in South Africa drills into the horns of live rhinos and injects them with toxic ectoparasiticides - an antiparisitic drug - and a permanent dye. That potent cocktail, while harmless to the rhino, makes the horn undesireable for ornamental use and, if ingested by people, can cause nausea, vomiting and convulsions. So far, it seems to be effective in stopping poachers, at least in parts of South Africa. “In the KwaZulu-Natal province, two of the hardest-hit reserves informed us that incursions had dropped from eighteen in the three months leading up to the procedures to only two in the three months after,” reports Dr. Lorinda Hern, one of the co-founders of the project. “To date, we have only lost 7 animals in total over a five year period. This is a triumph by any standard, especially, if you consider that South Africa is currently losing four animals to poaching per day."
There’s also Protect, a British non-profit that, in July, unveiled a monitoring system to help officials react to poaching in real time. Rhinos are outfitted with a heart-rate monitor and a radio collar, while a video camera is embedded in the horn. When approaching poachers cause the animal’s heart-rate to skyrocket, the monitor and collar send an alert and GPS coordinates to an anti-poaching surveillance team, which can confirm poachers as the cause via the video feed and quickly dispatch an anti-poaching unit. “Typically, an anti-poaching force will find out an incident took place a days later. You’re never gonna catch the guys who’ve done it or stop the horn from getting to market,” says Steve Piper. “But in this case, it puts anti-poaching forces hot on the poachers’ tracks.”
And then there’s Matthew Markus. Two decades later, technology has finally caught up with his original idea. “DNA sequencing dropped from billions of dollars to thousands of dollars; DNA synthesis, which didn’t exist back then, can now be done really easily,” he says. “If there was ever a time to try something, this would be the time to do it.” His company Pembient uses keratin - the protein that makes up rhino horn, as well as human hair and fingernails - in combination with rhino DNA to create a dried powder. That powder can be included in various products, like beer or cosmetics, or used to 3D print a completely synthetic full rhino horn.
Markus plans to flood the market with this synthetic version, which will have an identical genetic fingerprint to the real thing. Consumers wouldn’t be able tell the difference. Neither would high-tech labs. And a sudden surge in the availability of rhino horn would make it a much less lucrative venture for poachers. Pembient already has a partnership with a Chinese beer company to include the powder in their rhino horn beer. The company is also developing a relationship with pharmacies that sell rhino horn powder as part of traditional Chinese medicines. Markus also sees a way to attack the problem from the supply side; already he’s been contacted by people in South Africa and Kenya, where rhino poaching is rampant. “They feel the problem acutely and they’re interested in working on the supply side, injecting some of this product up the black market chain,” he says.
Even the best ideas have flaws and conservationists have highlighted many of the issues that these potential solutions possess. Injecting horns with poison is temporary, not to mention traumatic for rhinos, which have to be sedated. Ditto with embedding cameras into rhino horns. High-tech surveillance systems only work if connectivity and communications are strong. They also require local officials be able to respond in a timely way - not all parks have the equipment and ability to do so. And an influx of fake horns could end up drastically increasing demand for the real thing - making rhinos all that much more valuable. But just because these ideas aren’t perfect doesn’t mean one of them - or a combination - can’t succeed. The poaching problem requires creative, out-of-the-box thinking and a willingness to experiment. Scientists and entrepreneurs should keep the ideas coming.