Saving rhinos in a lab

(REUTERS)- This rhinoceros horn is a worth thousands of dollars on the black market because a poacher had to risk his life to kill an endangered species to obtain it.  

That is what Mr Matthew Markus, chief executive officer of Pembient, would have you believe.  

The truth is this horn wasn't cut off a rhino in the African savannah, it was synthesised in lab in San Francisco.  

Rhino horns are comprised primarily of keratin, a family of proteins that make up hair and nails. It is highly sought after in parts of Asia where it is used as an ingredient in conventional medicine.  

Mr Markus and his partner George Bonaci obtained a real rhinocerous horn and are using the latest techniques in biotechnology to replicate it so perfectly that it passes as the real thing.  

Mr Markus said:  "There is going to be some differences still. We are not bio-identical yet, though that is the goal. One of the interim goals is to make it more costly to test the object and the object's worth and I think we are pretty much getting to that territory now."  

If they perfect the science, the idea is to sell the lab grown horns.  For legal reasons they would need to be labelled as synthetic.

But is there a market for fake horns? Mr Markus says yes and he sees current day poachers as his best customers.  

Mr Markus said:  "We can't really control what happens to our horn once it leaves our distribution points. So there is potential that people will take our horn and re-label it as wild horn."  

He added:  "We want to make it such that people may not want to basically go out there and do this particular work anymore because it will not have this very lucrative payday for them." 

The big winners here are rhinos. Now that the technology to replicate their horns exists, the hope is that the incentive to hunt and kill them ends.