Can bioengineered rhino horns save the species?

rhino in Ngorongoro Conservation Area
A black rhinoceros browses in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Photo taken on an Ujuzi safari to Tanzania.

 

A San Francisco biochemist thinks he might have the solution to the rhino poaching problem: make rhino horns out of stem cells.

M.R. O’Connor reported in The Atlantic that the cells would be grown into horn shapes in the laboratory, then sold for use in traditional Chinese medicine, which is driving the current black market for rhinoceros horns. The horns would be biologically identical to real rhino horns, but wouldn’t involve injury or death.

Despite efforts to educate people about the plight of rhinos and the fact that rhino horn has no real medicinal value, demand for the horns remains high. It takes time to change minds – and time is something that rhinos don’t have. With only five remaining northern white rhinos, that subspecies is almost extinct. Conservationists estimate that southern white rhinos could be extinct in 23 years if current poaching trends continue.

Ceratotech, the company that filed a patent for the horn-growing process, hopes that flooding the market with biosynthetic horns will reduce the demand for horns from slaughtered rhinos. But there’s the risk that they could make it easier for poachers to sneak unethically sourced horns onto the market without getting caught.

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