In the public imagination, three-dimensional printing, or ‘additive manufacturing’, ranks alongside virtual-reality as one of the most exciting inventions of our time. Objects now routinely produced this way include car and airplane parts, and human organs and tissues.
The potential environmental benefits are clear — it should reduce the need for long-haul freight. Less well known is that, in recent years, 3-D printing has joined drones and remote sensing to become a significant hi-tech tool in the fight for wildlife preservation.
A rhino horn by any other name
To take a recent example: the plight of the white rhino must, by now, be well known. In March of this year, the last male northern white rhino was euthanised in Sudan, leaving only two ageing females remaining. Poaching of African rhinos has, despite conservationists’ best efforts, continued to rise — the equivalent of three rhinos a day were illegally killed on the continent last year.
Poachers and traders can expect to receive $60k per kilo — gram for gram, rhino horns are worth more than gold. The market is booming as rising prosperity in countries like China and Vietnam fuels a demand for horn carvings. They’re also valued for medicinal purposes.
Faced with this dismal trend, Pembient, a tech start-up, concluded that conventional measures to reduce the demand and supply for horns had failed. Instead, they proposed a radical solution: create synthetic rhino horns, which are genetically indistinguishable from the real thing, and flood the black market with them, thereby lowering the price and the poachers’ incentive.
Pembient’s 3-D biofabricated horns will be available to buy in coming years, but not everyone agrees with their strategy. Several anti-poaching NGOs have criticised the approach on the basis that, by expanding (perceived) supply, it helps legitimise the trade; that law enforcement officials will struggle to distinguish between authentic produce and fakes; and that — despite half of Vietnamese survey respondents claiming they’d prefer a cheaper synthetic product — consumers won’t change their habits due to the cultural-symbolic status.
Nevertheless, rhinos are just the beginning — next on Pembient’s hit list are black markets for tiger bone, pangolin scales and ivory…
Another area in which conservationists are harnessing the potential of 3-D printing is to produce lifelike substitutes of endangered natural habitats. New York-based firm MakerBot Industries, for instance, is making artificial shells for ‘homeless’ hermit crabs out of a special biodegradable plastic. The scheme, named Project Shellter, was launched in response to a dwindling supply of seashells caused by human activity and ocean acidification.
3-D printed coral skeletons have also been installed in the seas of the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and Australia. Unlike earlier attempts to manufacture reefs that would shelter more resilient marine ecosystems, the new technology allows for the creation of skeletons which mirror real coral in the finest of details, thus maximising chances of success. Made from sandstone, these are more than mere substitutes: they provide a scaffold for natural coral polyps to aggregate and flourish, and are currently undergoing a two-year trial. In the words of Fabien Cocteau, grandson of the legendary filmmaker, 3-D technology “creates a larger impact in a shorter amount of time” than conventional restoration processes.
And on a smaller scale — at least for the time being — 3-D printing has expanded opportunities to produce lifelike prosthetics for injured or deformed animals. Especially complex structures — such as the shattered beak of the internet-famous Costa Rican toucan ‘Grecia’ — can now be made from sophisticated digital designs, enabling wounded creatures to survive and thrive.
Accessing nature’s data goldmine
Finally, scientists are creating 3-D replicas of natural artefacts in order to get up close and personal to animals in their natural setting and gather data at an unprecedented level of detail.
The vultures of Britain’s International Centre for Birds of Prey, for example, tend to 3-D printed nylon eggs in their nests; the eggs contain sensors feeding back information on the precise environmental and behavioural nature of incubation. Vultures are at risk from eating cattle poisoned by African farmers to deter lions. So, to support their captive breeding program, researchers needed fine-grained data on how to nurture vulture eggs — and only the intimacy afforded by the eggs could give them this.
In California, researchers at Paso Pacifico have printed silicone sea turtle eggs implanted with GPS trackers, and mixed them with real eggs on the beaches of Central America. In an area where poaching is rife — an estimated 90% of nests are poached on unguarded beaches — and nearly all local turtle species are endangered or at risk, data was scarce on the end consumers of the eggs (considered a local ‘lowbrow delicacy’). Now, the ersatz eggs are providing law enforcement with the data they need to target the demand side of the equation.
While it’s still early days, 3-D printing holds the promise of improving on many modern-day conservation strategies. Along the way, it will no doubt raise concerns about the balance between protection and prevention, mitigation and adaptation, but in this it is surely no different from any other policy instrument, and should be welcomed for its unique benefits.