China has made astounding progress over the last decade in a range of ways.

One archaic tradition that still holds, however, is one of the most cruel. From shark fins to deer penis, animals are mutilated on a remarkable scale in order to provide ingredients for traditional ‘medicines’ that have no scientific validity supporting them.

One of the most sought after ingredients, rhino horn, now costs close to $65,000 a kilogram, making it more expensive than cocaine. It is in such high demand that the only male northern white rhino left in the world is under permanent armed-guard. The demand has also seen it become a trophy in the eyes of wealthy Vietnamese, who put them on show to highlight their good fortune.

That’s why biotech startup Pembient have started creating fake horns, with which they plan to flood the market and, effectively, curb the poaching of a creature on the brink of extinction.

Faux-horns aren’t a new idea; originally made out of buffalo horn or resin, they have been available for some time. Approximately 90% of horns on the market are fake, but that’s proven to only drive up interest in the real thing.

It was this point that the International Rhino Foundation and Save the Rhino International made when they released an announcement opposing the project in mid-2015.

But in doing so, they overlooked one important aspect: Pembient’s products are genetically identical to that of an actual rhino.

Using a mix of keratin (the same protein found in your fingernails) and rhino DNA that they cast into a 3D model of a horn, the resulting object is indistinguishable from the real thing.

Pembient are already in talks with skin care companies and breweries in south-east Asia about adding their horns to products, and are also turning their attention to the ivory blackmarket in order to halt elephant poaching as well.

There are fears that Pembient’s work will bring a form of legitimacy to the medical ‘benefits’ of horns and other animal-based ingredients, but if it means securing the future of the species from which those ingredients come, it’s obviously worth trying.

You can watch a commercial for a skin care product that uses Pembient’s horn powder below.

Is Pembient’s project a worthwhile endeavour, or are there alternatives that can solve the problem of poaching? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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