capacity of the monarch butterfly >> reporter: we're seeing if it is a come back or just a brief respite all the news, of course, on our website. there it is on your screen, the address aljazeera.com valuable horn. high demand continues to fuel illegal poaching. today taking the animal to the brink of extinction. in a race against time, scientists are working on a lab-based rhino alternative >> we want to preserve traditions and animals will it pass as real, will it satisfy the demand, will it help save the species?
this is techknow. the show about innovations that can change lives. >> genetically modified food we're going to explore the intersection of hardware and humanity and we're doing it in a unique way. this is a show about science by scientists. techknow investigates rhino horn. welcome to techknow. we're talking about a unique and rhinos. >> it is completely devastating rhinos, but this story starts with a company that is based in san francisco and they're
literally cultivating rhino horn in the lab. fake rhino, but they're aiming for it to be completely indistinguishable from the real thing what i find fascinating this is the opposition to it is coming from environmentalists itself >> the reason is because it's a controversial topic. we have to start with why they're in the position to begin with let's take a look. [ ♪ ] >> modern day hanoi. the cap toll of vietnam is a city of contrast. it is where consumerism meets communism. where western tastes mingle with ancient traditions.
like this one, the mistaken use the rhino horn for medicine. this more fighting practice is usually conducted in the shadows of the plaque market >> this is a very valuable product-- black market >> it sells higher than gold. >> the demand for rhino horn has poached the species to the brink of extinction. >> her face was hacked off >> why in the 21st century ancient myths are set to destroy animals. it is said that the horn cures disease. it is a status symbol in vietnam where there is more new wealth and use of rhino. it isn't just used the way the previous generation did. this group of friends mixing it with their drinks during a night
of partying. a recent report by traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring group, suggested the use of rhino horn amongst wealthy urban vietnamese men is now one of the major drivers of rhino poaching. with demand high, prices are soaring. this man told us he could afford the habit. traditions don't dire here. they take on new forms. rhino horn is illegal in vietnam, but techknow arranged a rare on-camera interview with this former user.
>> he told techknow that he used it to treat an illness that left lumps on his arms but quit after two years when it failed to produce results. sadly, the facts do not support a single health claim surrounding the horns. in fact, rhino horn is made mostly of keratin, the same nails. >> we went through the process. >> reporter: one of the latest and most controversial to stop the use of rhino comes from a tech-start up in is an fan cisco. an analytical chemist and one of the co-founders said they want to disrupt of illegal rhino horn trade by flooding it with an alternative. i know what you're aiming for is called a bio- identical product.
what does that mean? >> it means that you would not be able to tell by any analytical xhem spree thold or d.n.a. method whether it was wild or cultured or made in the wild. >> reporter: he took me through the steps. keratin. >> you don't want any of your d.n.a. getting in there or who knows what will happen. >> reporter: what do you have in this box here? >> so these are a lot of genes. it came from the whole database of a white rhino. we're going to eliminate this code for hair, fingernails, for maybe a rhino corn. >> reporter: it has been a process of trial and error but he says he has identified the gener responsible for rhino horn keratin. it is inserted into bio- engineered yeast
>> once you get the yeast that has these instructions to turn sugar into a certain protein, up can take that and it's just like beer, giant vats. >> reporter: you're brewing rhino horn >> yes. >> reporter: that is combined with other elements found in rhino horn, like zinc and nickel in a powder. we started with a powder. we want to go further because people want full horns. it is a marker of authenticity. >> reporter: this is. ceo and says using 3d printing techniques they want to manufacture rhino horns that will pass as the real deal >> reporter: we've covered the wildlife trade extensively and on i got to hold one. here is a picture. that's a fairly large rhino horn. are you saying that your product will eventually look exactly like that? >> yes. that's what we're aiming for.
we want to do something that is exactly the same as the rhino horn >> reporter: by flooding the market with its bio- fabricated horns, they have lofty goals suggesting that the prices for rhino horn will drop dramatically reducing or putting the extinction to an end. it's a provocative idea that has drawn criticism from many. big companies seeking to bio- suspicion. >> they're trying to do it to make money and i think that's their primary goal. >> reporter: john baker is managing director of wild aid, an environmental group that works to convince consumers to stop using endangered wildlife
products. >> you can change people's attitudes, especially in a country like vietnam where so many of the people are young. what we don't want to do is now give the young people a reason to start using rhino horn because it's okay to use rhino horn >> reporter: it is said it is a matter of economics and putting more lab-made rhino horn on the market is what will save the rhino >> we are looking at the whole supply chain of how horns move from africa into east asia. we want to target along that supply chain, offer our horn as an alternative to poached horn >> relying on the fact that, you know, once it's out in the market, the product might sold and change hands as if it were real rhino horn. is that a part of your here. >> people may find it ethical. some people may buy it in the hope of making a profit as reselling tasmania a real horn.
we will be able to create a pricing graduate. gentleman it is said it will be over a year for a product that will be placed on the market. the question is will it work? coming up next we lab. >> okay. >> fire it up >> reporter: we see if the fake rhino horn can pass as the real thing. [ ♪ ] we want to hear what you think about these stories. follow us on twitter and at aljazeera.com/techknow >> "inside story" takes you beyond the headlines, beyond the quick cuts, beyond the soundbites.
three rhinos are killed a day in south africa. >> the poaching has got so bad that the species will be extinct for three to five years. >> reporter: the bio- fabrication of one of the most illegal substances in the world there? >> our benchmark is to pass any test that a laboratory can do. >> reporter: techknow put it to the test taking a powder sample to see how closely its current prototype matches up with the real thing >> here is a sample we prepared for you.
if you take this and test it, it horn. >> all right. we take the powder sample for independent analysis at this commercial lab in seattle started by a washington ufrt professor. -- university professor. they test many things. if someone is going to spend a tonne of money on rhino because it is super expensive they might want to get tested it this way >> yes. it is a good way to do it. >> reporter: the chief materials chemist shows us around. >> i have the sample here that we are going to test against your sample which is, what? >> this is a sample of an actual rhino horn from the museum here. >> reporter: one of the things we're looking for is how closely a protein known as keratin
matches up with the sample. keratin is similar to-- of the rhino horn is similar to human's nails. i sacrificed mind for comparison. does it matter how good? >> no. if you get a good chunk of the white part it should be fine okay. >> i have three samples now. the >> we test the flake of rhino horn using xrf. it is bombarded with x-rays >> i'm going you to prep the machine. >> very important not to lose your sample. rhino horn there. the sam goes right on top. >> place it underneath there and center it. >> this is the xrf. how is that? >> perfect.
i'm going to turn on the x-ray emitter now. immediately. >> fire it up >> we then compare the results of thehino horn xrf analysis against the company sample and my fingernail >> the red is my fingernail? >> yes. >> the purpose is the company sample >> correct. >> then the green as before is the rhino. my completely untrained eye, i see big differences >> we're mainly seeing huge differences in the amount of sals yum. it is high in the company camp. -- calcium. it is high in the company sample. yours and the real horn samples. they're similar. the company sample is similar but there's high levels of calcium which are probably an effect of the growth medium or additives >> from the pharmaceutical perspective, would you say you're just as well suited
having powered physical nail as you are powdered rhino horn >> you might get people having a tough time to go with that, but i would agree with that. >> next we use ftir to determine the molecules present. after seeing high levels of calcium, what comes next isn't a surprise >> the two compounds showing up strongly are two. >> why would these two minerals be included? >> they're both used as preservatives. calcium carbonate is an anti pumping agent and the other is a preserver. >> so much president in the company sample it is hard to get a good sense of keratin protein. >> because we know there's cash nature and citrate in it, we can
separate the peaks out. that will leave the peaks associated with the protein. what is left is a protein that bears some resemblance to rhino keratin and it doesn't look like yeast which was what was used to make the bio- neared rhino horn. >> there is keratin there. it is a crude form of it. there's more refinement that need to be done. they're not there yet, but they're going in the right direction. >> reporter: according to the final lab report, the company sample contained high levels of calcium aattributed to large quantities of preservatives obviously not found in the real rhino horn. we reached out to the company for comment. they responded that the high leflts of calcium why-- levels of calcium were in keeping with the real horn. while they acknowledged the presence of some preservatives, they says "they're just part of the prototype process and won't
be in the horn when we are at the pilot plant scale". only time will tell if they have cracked the code in creating the horn that is 100% bio- identical to the same thing. my fingernails are currently still a closer match, begging the question, if taking rhino horn powder is essentially the same as chewing on your fingernails could users be persuaded to just say no? up next, synthetic rhino horn comes under fire. >> i think it's very dangerous and i encourage them to not introduce products. >> images matter. >> innovative filmmaker, spike lee - on his controversial new movie. >> the southwest side of chicago is a war zone. >> taking on the critics. >> and another thing... a lot of the people have not seen the film. >> and spurring change through his art. >> we want this film to save lives. >> i lived that character.
rhino horn, ground to a powder and used for treating disease has been a medicinal myth for century. it is more expensive than gold, cocaine. it is $17 an ounce. in recent years rhino horn has seen a resurgence in popularity, especially among the upper class >> it is a very expensive product. also the more available it is and the more people talk about it, the more other people want to have it >> we want to preserve traditions and animals. it's not a zero sum gain where the animal has to die to save the tradition or the tradition has to die to save the animal. would such an alternative be
appropriate? . this woman is president of a company importer of traditional medicine. she says even the additional medicine needs to evolve for the time. this is the kind of medicine chops you see in china towns around the world. >> we have to have exotic herbs. this is the gheko. >> what is this used for? >> it is used as a tonic and it is used a lot for asthma. >> reporter: she told me that rhino horn was used 2000 years ago for diseases like epilepsy and menninggitis. >> there's no evidence at all that it could do something for cancer. hang overs, especially. i don't even know why someone
would try to use it for that. phenomenon. >> right. i guess people just want to believe what they want to believe, but there's plenty of other cures for hang over that don't involve killing such a magnificent animal. >> reporter: what about the company alternative? >> we don't sell it, and we wouldn't want to sell is real or synthetic. why not? >> it encourages people to look for the real such because people will think it doesn't work the same as the real thing >> reporter: what if the synthetic could pass as the real thing? that is what the company is driving on to drive the prices down >> i think it is dangerous and i ken courage them-- encourage them not to produce a synthetic product. >> reporter: he is
it legititmises horn at the wrong time. he is promoting ads like this. >> the buying should stop. >> reporter: each year the numbers of republicans slaughter arered to climb. 1312 was killed in the last year. this vietnamese man says education won't deter users. >> reporter: it is the demand of die hard users that the company
believes it can satisfy without hurting rhinos >> all these demand reduction campaigns may not necessarily work. we're trying to see if we can develop other tools. this is an inevitability. it will happen. we call it cultivation 2.0. >> reporter: he has referred to this as cultivation 2.0 as we need to have new approaches brought to the table. what do you think? >> i am all for innovating and coming up with new ways to solve this problem. i don't think this is a particularly effective slupgs. i think one-- solution. i think one of the dangers is we promote the idea that technology is going to save the day and we take our eye off the ball. it less ens the urgency. the clock is particular itting
and we need to simplify the path of solution >> reporter: for rhinos the clock is ticking. that's the only thing that the two sides can agree on. whether the company will succeed in its bio- tech and conservation goals is only something time will tell. at stake, the future of a species you know, this story was actually really hard for me. i'm a conservationist and i understand how dire the situation is for rhinos. this kind of approach that is innovative, disruptive makes me nervous why? >> well, to me the idea of driving down prices by completely swamping the market with a fake alternative, it raises a bunch of questions about, well, are we just going to increase demand? are we going to find new uses for this product and then potentially drive people to continue to poach or poach even more
>> this seems less like a science experiment and more like an economics experiment. just to see what happens when you mess with that supply. i will say the big thing in this is let's say that experiment goes wrong and they find it increases demand. maybe they can pull back. do you have any idea that they will pull back? >> i think they would. one of their main goals is to stop poaching >> how are you going to be able to prosecute poachers, people who are trading the real rhino horn if we have this market flooded with the fake such. how will you distinguish? >> this is such a complex scenario that we have here, right. we're talking about international syndicates, the supply chain is infinitely complex. law enforcement is already overburdened at every step of that supply chain. so the company's solution, at least what they're proposing, is insert what they're you will calling a water mark into the product whereby only law
enforcement would be able to scan a product and be able to know what that water mark looked like i think that is an idealise distic solution. corruption ask at every level. somebody else will figure it out and that can really mess with that is out there. when it comes to our environmental challenges, one size does not fit all. we're going to have to keep our eye on this one and seep how it goes. thanks for watching this episode of techknow. see you next time go behind the scenes at aljazeera.com/techknow. follow our contributors on all social media platforms. >> al jazeera america - proud to tell important stories of native lives. >> oak flat to the apaches is an ancestral place. what'll happen to this after the mine...this will sink away and
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