Faking the Horn: can synthetic technology save the rhino?

This image is the harrowing winner from Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017.  It is a sight that has become all too common in reserves across Africa: the lifeless corpse of a rhinoceros, a gaping wound the only remains of its once great horned visage.  The poaching crisis threatens to condemn these magnificent creatures to extinction, unless radical steps are taken.  Several biotechnology companies think they have a solution: sell artificial horns instead, reducing pressure on wild populations.  It’s a bold idea, but could it really work?

The Poaching Problem

When I first saw a wild rhinoceros, poaching was almost unheard of.  In that year, 2007, just 13 rhinos were killed in South Africa, which is home to 70% of the world population.  Since then, over 7000 rhinos have been slaughtered across Africa.  I recently experienced this myself in the Kruger National Park, coming across a mutilated carcass slumped unceremoniously by the roadside.  It was less than a mile from a ranger station, and yet the poachers had got away with it; the Kruger is so vast that it is nearly impossible to police, and poachers are well-financed and heavily armed [1].  At least 826 rhinos were killed in 2015 in the park, and the true figure is probably higher.

poachingstats

© WWF

The driver of all this poaching is an insatiable demand from Asia, particularly Vietnam and China, where rhino horn is falsely believed to have medicinal value.  As people in South-East Asia have become wealthier, the demand for expensive wildlife products has risen, and this trend is only likely to continue; today, rhino horn on the black market can cost nearly $100,000/kg!

Saved by Synthetics?

In the face of such overwhelming demand, and the problems with enforcement [2], the future for wild rhinos can look very bleak.  This is where the biotechnology companies have stepped in.  Matthew Markus, the CEO of Pembient, argues that demand reduction is unworkable.  Instead, Markus wants to flood the market with cheap artificial horn which is practically identical to the real thing, such that consumers are unable to distinguish the two; theoretically, the price of all rhino products will then fall.  As the price of rhino horn goes down, poaching will become less profitable!  Other companies are considering marketing their product (falsely) as containing real horn, or that somehow the synthetic product is “better than the real thing”.  Hopefully, this will encourage consumers to buy artificial rhino horn, instead of genuine rhino products.

Locking Horns: conflict over synthetics

The case for synthetics is compelling on paper, but would it work in practice?  Many conservationists think not.  In July 2016, the International Rhino Foundation and Save the Rhino International issued a joint statement, outlining their opposition.  Firstly, they say that there is no evidence that synthetic horn would reduce the demand for real horn; more than 90% of “rhino horns” currently in circulation are actually already fake (mostly wood or buffalo horn), and yet consumers are still willing to pay astronomical prices.

Another concern is that a legal trade in synthetics could give credibility to beliefs about horn’s medicinal value; furthermore, any social stigma attached to the purchase of illegal products could be eroded by the availability of legal synthetic horn.  The presence of legal, synthetic horn in the market would also create an unmanageable situation for law enforcement, especially if it is impossible to distinguish it from the real thing!  Traffickers caught with genuine horn could easily claim ignorance, and synthetics could therefore protect the illegal trade.  Finally, reducing horn prices may not even lead to a reduction in poaching, unless costs for poachers also rise [3].

Despite this, companies hope that conservationists will eventually come on board; a 2016 paper [4] stated that, in light of the failures of other approaches, “it would be rash to rule out the possibility that trade in synthetic rhinoceros horn could play a role in future conservation strategies.”

rhinos for blog

The white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) is the species which has been killed in the greatest numbers. © Ben Chapple

Modelling Horn

The arguments from both sides are speculative; nobody knows how consumers will respond to artificial horn!  The question is: are there circumstances under which synthetic horn could help to save the rhino?  A recent study was the first to properly model the economics of synthetic horn, and the implications for conservation are fascinating [5].

As some feared, there is a conflict between protecting rhinos and profits.  Synthetic producers might want to keep supply low, maintaining a high price for their products; to drive horn prices down and put poachers out of business, the market for synthetic horns must therefore be competitive.  This assumes that synthetics are perfect substitutes for wild horns, but companies would benefit from marketing their products as superior (e.g. free from contaminants), to encourage consumers to actively seek out their products above wild horn.  This would actually increase the average quality of horn in the market, driving prices upwards and making poaching more lucrative!

So, neither bioidentical nor superior synthetics guarantees a fall in poaching.  But there is a third option: synthetic horn that is somehow inferior to the wild product!  This could be simply that it is fake, or perhaps that it causes a stomach upset.  So long as it’s tricky to identify, undesirable fake horn in the market should weaken consumer confidence and lead to a collapse in prices.  However, companies would be unlikely to follow a strategy that was so bad for their own business!

Instead, the study suggests that we should help non-profit organisations to acquire synthetic technology [5]!  Unencumbered by thoughts of profit or marketing strategy, conservationists could secretly release inferior fakes into the supply chain, fatally undermining consumer confidence and horn prices.  Encouragingly, the models suggest that even a small quantity of inferior substitutes could be enough to drive poachers out of the market!

The Pointy End

So should we do it?  Used in the wrong way, synthetic rhino horn harms the cause of conservation.  However, under special circumstances this technology does have the potential to reduce, or even completely stop poaching!  Right now we are failing to save the rhino, and we could use all the help we can get.

 

References

[1] Duffy (2014): Waging a war to save biodiversity: the rise of militarized conservation. International Affairs 90: 819-834

[2] Challender, MacMillan (2014): Poaching is more than an Enforcement Problem. Conservation Letters 7:484-494

[3] Crookes (2017): Does a reduction in the price of horn prevent poaching? Journal of Nature Conservation 39: 73-82

[4] Broad, Burgess (2016): Synthetic biology, product substitution and the battle against illegal wildlife trade. TRAFFIC bulletin 28: 23-28

[5] Chen (2017): The Economics of Synthetic Rhino Horns. Ecological Economics 141: 180-189

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