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By Eric Rugara

When I first heard about 3D printing, my mind spun. Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is a novel manufacturing process that enables you to create three dimensional objects by forming successive layers of material under computer control. It’s the future of manufacturing. Just as past technologies have disrupted entire industries, 3D printing is set to revolutionize and shake up the manufacturing industry. According to Bill Nye, additive manufacturing will democratize manufacturing in the same way art has been democratized; for instance, anyone can now mix their own musical tracks at home, and afterwards post them on Youtube – anyone can be a musician.

But what was most interesting for me was 3D printings possible impact on the ivory trade. Several biotech companies are working to 3d print synthetic rhino or elephant horn in a bid to push poachers out of the market. My initial reaction was joy, as I immediately thought, “Technology has saved the day again”. I honestly believed that 3D printing spelled the doom for elephant and rhino poaching.

But as soon as I did some research, I discovered that I was wrong. Rather than leap in joy at what by all definitions would seem to be a magic formula for their perennial problem of dealing with poaching, Wildlife Conservation groups have been hesitant, with some being downright antagonistic to the idea of introducing synthetic rhino horn and elephant tusks or pangolin scales into the market.

Save the Rhino International (SRI) and The International Rhino Foundation (IRF) issued a statement on June 2015 in which they questioned the benefits of the proposed manufacture of synthetic rhino horn by biotech companies. Their main contention is expressed in this simple question: “But will the manufacture and sale of synthetic horn mean that fewer rhinos are poached? Or will it expand the market for such products, complicate law-enforcement, and lead to more rhino killings?”

One of the companies spearheading this initiative is Pembient, a US biotech company based in Seattle, Washington. I found this statement on their website: “We are leveraging advances in biotechnology to fabricate wildlife products, such as rhino horn and elephant ivory, at prices below the levels that induce poaching our goal is to replace the illegal wildlife trade, a $20B black market, the fourth largest after drugs, arms, and human trafficking, with sustainable commerce.”

Conservationists have protested against Pembient’s intentions, pointing out that instead of solving the poaching problem, their commercialization of rhino horn and rhino horn products will only aggravate it, and almost certainly open more markets for illicit horn trade.

Kenya is home to a variety of national parks and game reserves, providing habitats for elephants, rhinos, and other wild animals. Today the elephant population is estimated at 38,000, which is a considerable number, though highly at risk because of the relentless poaching.  The Black Rhinoceros population is smaller, with the number being 612 in 2009, which makes them a higher priority. Elephant poaching peaked in 2012, when 384 elephants were killed. For rhino poaching, the peak was in 2013, when 59 rhinos were killed. This is why Kenyans must pay close attention to the current developments in the rhino horn and elephant ivory markets vis a vis 3D printing. When the time comes, and you have to choose a stand, it will help if you already know the benefits and consequences of the same.

In the Illiad, the Greek poet Homer narrates the story of the Trojan War. For ten years the impenetrable city of Troy was under siege, and the war raged relentlessly until the crafty Odysseus, king of Ithaca had a bright idea. One day the citizens of Troy saw the Greek armies retreating. Shouts of joy went up around the city streets. On close inspection, they realized that the Greeks had left something: a tall wooden horse. After consultation, the wise men of Troy decided that the Greeks had left the horse as a gift, signalling their acceptance of defeat. So the Trojans rolled the wooden horse into their city, and commenced celebrations.

That night, when everyone in the city was sleeping, Greek men who were hiding within the wooden horse, stole out, killed the guards, and opened the city gates, at which the rest of the Greek armies poured into Troy, and mowed down everyone with the edge of the sword. Since that day, the phenomenon of a harmless seeming (and indeed useful appearing) thing being the precursor of something harmful or evil has been known as the Trojan Horse.

My question is: could this 3D printing of rhino and elephant horns be a Trojan Horse? Are we, like the Trojans, leaping with joy at what seems to be an unexpected boon, when in fact we are welcoming the doom, the enemy? Is this how we lose the war against poaching? Tell us what you think in the comment section.