Scientists Have Ingenious Plan To Foil Black Market Demand For Rhino Horns

The plight of endangered rhinos has scientists racing against time to save them, especially from poachers who kill them for their horns. But a new study suggests flooding the black market with fake rhino horns in order to drive down the value of the horns, which should eliminate demand.

There are currently around 30,000 or fewer rhinos still alive, and that number is getting lower by the day, mostly because of illegal poaching and habitat destruction. As one of the largest mega-fauna on land, the rhino is a key species to the ecosystems in which they live. Without them, many species of animals and plants would be negatively impacted and we would be deprived of a magnificent creature. And that’s why scientists are working do hard to save them.

The main problem is the demand for rhino horns, which some people falsely believe have medicinal properties even though the horns are made of solid keratin, the same substance that makes up our fingernails and hair.

Despite the illegality of buying rhino horns, the demand is so high that there is a black market dealing in them, and they are expensive.

That makes rhino horns particularly valuable to poachers. But scientists have an idea to drive the value of rhino horns down to the point where poachers will be forced to stop hunting rhinos to acquire them because they won’t be able to bring in top dollar on the black market anymore.

“The economists seem to think that if you flood the market with substitutes, the price will drop,” University of Oxford Professor Fritz Vollrath said. “If the price drops and the penalty of having rhino horn is still very high, then the value proposition changes for the trader.”

Indeed, and scientists have an ingenious plan to flood the market with fake rhino horns that are indistinguishable from the real thing by using horsetail hair.

According to The Guardian:

The team say they chose horse hair because the animal is a close cousin to the rhinoceros, while the hairs have similar dimensions to the keratin filaments – or hair – that the team say make up rhino horn.

The “glue” used by the team was a silk-based substance they say emulates the materials that fulfill the role in real rhino horn. Cellulose was also included in the artificial mix to resemble the plant material that is incorporated when the animal sharpens its horn.

The material is then formed into the shape of a rhino horn, dried and polished. It’s so convincing that no one can tell the difference under a microscope.

And the fake horns are very cheap to make.

“It appears from our investigation that it is rather easy, as well as cheap, to make a bio-inspired horn-like material that mimics the rhino’s extravagantly expensive tuft of nose hair,” the team wrote in the study published by Scientific Reports journal.

By flooding the market with the fakes, it will be impossible for buyers to know whether they are getting the real thing or not, so they will likely stop engaging in the illegal trade. And poachers will stop because they can no longer make money.

“[The idea is] any punter who wants to spend 1,000 quid on a couple of grams says, ‘Wait a minute, what is my probability that my stuff is real or that it is just horsehair?’” Vollrath explained. “It is just rattling the market.”

But detractors of the idea claim that introducing the fake horns to the black market could have the opposite effect.

“Pushing a synthetic alternative could help to reinforce the perception that rhino horn is a desirable commodity, thus perpetuating existing demand, while presenting consumers with a synthetic alternative may actually stimulate demand for the real thing, thus exacerbating the existing situation,” Dr. Richard Thomas of wildlife organization Traffic said, stressing behavioral changes and stronger deterrents to end the trade.

It should be pointed out, however, that Thomas’ strategy has been in practice for years and rhino populations are still dwindling. The fact is that there are people willing to spend big money on rhino horns. But if the market is flooded with high-quality fakes that can’t be differentiated from the real deal, the price will drop and poachers will have no more incentive to poach rhinos for their horns. It’s certainly worth a try because rhinos don’t have a whole lot of time left to wait for the usual methods to start working.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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Stephen D. Foster Jr.
 

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