Will sharks and rhinos thank bioengineers one day?

Social Entrepreneurship and Wildlife

When thinking about entrepreneurs I think about risk taking in a reasonable way. “Social entrepreneur”, something I personally like to put down as a career option, is a lot harder to define. According to Ashoka’s definitions of social entrepreneurs, they come up with innovations in order to confront a social problem. Depending on our viewpoint, the consumption of wildlife products might represent such an undesirable situation.

This year, startups aiming to produce substitutes for illegally and legally traded wildlife products have been trending. Two of the most prominent examples from the Incubator IndieBio are going to be covered in this post. Can these firms be regarded as examples of social entrepreneurship? And, do these bioengineered products notably contribute to an overall better situation and recovery of threatened animal populations. At first sight, it seems quite obvious that a replacing product, that can compete with the natural one, would take pressure from animal populations. Yet, it remains to be seen, if these innovations can take away a substantial share of the black market for wildlife that is estimated between $8bn and $20bn?

The measures taken

Tackling the supply side has proven particularly difficult due to the huge incentives for organised crime. Rhino horn is worth more on the markets than gold or the estimated wholesale price of cocaine. This explains why many argue that a ban is counterproductive. The development in recent years after the introduction of the ban (e.g. 2009 in South Africa) indicates that the ban had no positive effect at all: Poaching numbers in South Africa are up to an all time high.

There has been a variety of reasons why most measures to drive down supply did not achieve the desired results. Legislations have been highly diluted and proven ineffective as there are many exceptions and loopholes that transnational organized crime can easily make use of. In this respect, corruption is also an immense problem. As a result task forces to combat wildlife crime have been set up and wildlife crime has been declared a top priority, but if this is going to have a noticeable effect has yet to be seen.

NGOs and Intergovernmental organization have tried to actually put the focus more on the demand side by raising awareness in consumer countries and thus drive down the demand. This seems to have worked in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. However, the demand of China and especially Vietnam are still highly problematic.

Bioengineering approach to alter the market

Two biotechnology startups funded by the same accelerator are working under the assumption the that market-based approaches can actually alleviate the critical situation. Their assumption is that if there is a demand for these wildlife goods that is rooted in the culture the best way is to satisfy this demand artificially rather than critisizing these consumtions habits (possibly without any right or reason).

Synthesizing rhino horn

Pembient is one of these two young entreprises and it starts off as quite an ambitious one, wanting to replace the “$20bn illegal wildlife trade black market” with sustainable commerce. Their first product and one of great interest here, is the synthetic rhino horn. The idea is to stop stigmatizating the end-user and redirect the demand away from the natural product to the synthetic horn that is very similar to real rhino horn (genetically and visually). The product is not on the market yet, but estimated sales prices of $7500 to $8000, promise good chances of taking a share of the market. In Vietnam studies have been conducted by Pembient and there seems to be substantial demand for the synthetic alternative.


NewWaveFoods, a team of three young researchers, focus on bioengineered seafood and one of their products, the SmartFin, notably addresses the issue of shark finning. The SmartFin artificially and successfully replaces the most controverse ingredient of the shark fin soup.

While one in four chondrichthyan fishes is threatened (according to the IUCN red list), one of the stress factors for shark populations might be easing off now: The demand for shark fins has been declining strongly over the last couple of years seeing leading to a market price drop of roughly 50%. Whether this is due to consumer-targetted awareness campaigns carried out by NGOs (e.g. by Wild Life as shown below) or other factors like a changing age structure of users and a lifestyle more exposed to Western ideas cannot be said at this moment of time.

Yao Ming Shark Fin Soup Campaign-MANDARIN from Shark Savers on Vimeo (Mandarin version of the “Say ‘no’ to shark fin soup’ campaign featuring Yao Ming. WildAid and Shark Savers.)

The critique of biotec solutions

There is a fair amount of critique to these high-tec solutions and I consider myself a scepticist as well.

Firstly, by creating an artificial “copy” of these natural products the side effect is, in my opinion, that the demand for the “real thing” might be reinforced. The cheaper bioengineered version is in a way an entry point for many users. This could mean we create a complement to the original good and do not greatly effect the demand of the targetted product.

Secondly, one might argue that our replicas are very tolerant and peaceful approaches as they accept other cultural preferences and customs that we might not be entitled to critisize. However, should we push down our concern about species being deliberately taken from this world? Of course not. It has been seen that NGOs did achieve a turn-around in consumer behaviour in China and other Asian countries meaning that there has been agreement these goods should not be consumed also from diverse cultural viewpoints. Yet, it is now not unlikely that this new type of product undermines the hard efforts in awareness raising and education over the last years, especially for shark fins.

In any case these products should be given a chance because no measure aimed at these issues has had the desired effect yet. In the case of the rhinos our time is running out and thus we have to act now. Bioengineered products could play a role in this, but it is of utmost importance that they do not undermine other measures. One way would be not trying to make it look like the original which then in return makes it harder to market, but in that way there would be consistency with a ban and awareness campaigns. The biotec companies concerned should team up with the NGOs and communicate a clear message: The consumption of this product is banned worldwide for good reasons. Instead, buy the available products that have the same composition and do not harm any species.