3D-printed horns could save Africa's wild rhinos

Rhino poaching has spiked in the last decade (Getty)
Rhino poaching has spiked in the last decade (Getty)

Demand for African rhino horns is driving the creature to the brink of extinction, but biotech firms say they have a solution - 3D-printed horns.

Rhino horns can go for NZ$84,000 on the black market, and are used in Asia as part of traditional medicine, decorative status symbols or offered as gifts.

Proposed solutions have included a controlled harvest of horns or legalising the trade, which was banned in the 1970s, to reduce the size of the black market.

But a number of biotech firms say synthetic material and rhino DNA can be used to created 3D-printed imitations of rhino horns, and that these can be used to restrain demand for the real thing.

Matthew Markus, chief executive of Seattle-based biotech firm Pembient, says they will have a product ready in two years.

"They are solids but they don't have all the properties of rhino horn, and we are working now to produce these high quality bio-identical solids," Mr Markus told the BBC.

The company also plans to produce replicants of other parts of endangered animals, including elephant tusks and scales of pangolins.

However, environmental groups have been critical of Pembient and other similar firms.

Earlier this year, the Center for Biological Diversity, a US-based non-profit organisation, filed a petition to the US Fish and Wildlife service to ban the sale of fake rhino horns.

They said that synthetic horns could provide cover for the trafficking of genuine horns and that by reaching more customers, they will widen the appeal of rhino horns instead of reducing demand.

Rhino poaching has spiked in the last decade, reaching a record high of 1215 killed in 2014.