Can Fake Horns Save the Rhino? That’s … Extremely Thorny

The economics of knockoffs is simple: The rich buy Prada bags, while the not so rich opt for fakes, which telegraph to the world they’re just as shallow as the rich, but on a budget. Prada doesn’t like knockoffs because they undercut both the bottom line as well as the purity of its brand.

Some scientists have been trying to put this principle to work in the rhino horn trade, by producing a convincing synthetic alternative and one day unleashing it on the market. A recent paper in Scientific Reports describes the manufacture of imitation rhino horn from, of all things, horsehair, using a process that is both simpler and produces a more convincing knockoff than earlier attempts, according to the researchers involved.

“Economists would argue if there is a commodity that’s very expensive, and if you can flood that market, you should bring the price down if the copies are good,” says University of Oxford biologist Fritz Vollrath, coauthor on the study. That would make poaching less lucrative, potentially helping to save the endangered species. “Hopefully it will rattle the market.”

There’s just one thing. Conservation groups and others who study the rhino horn trade argue that fake alternatives are unlikely to end up preserving the endangered species, and could even make the problem worse.

At left in images A and C, a cross section of a real rhino horn. Images B and D are the artificial horn made in the lab.

Photograph: Scientific Reports

The Oxford team focused on verisimilitude, with the idea that if you can confuse buyers, the price of horn will eventually crater as potential acquirers either sate their desires with cheaper wares or grow skittish of buying the wrong thing. Rhino horns don’t grow like the antlers of a deer (made of bone) or the tusks of an elephant (giant teeth). They’re made of hairs growing out of the nose, stuck tightly together with excretions from glands. With this new technique, the researchers used hairs from horses, the rhino’s closest relative. Like our own hair, these strands are scaly, while the rhino’s are smooth, so they used lithium bromide to chemically etch away horsehair’s rough outer layer. The researchers then bundled the horsehairs together in a tube and glued them together using a substance made of silk and cellulose.

“If you then polish it, it looks very, very similar to rhino horn,” says Vollrath. If you cross-section it, it looks similar as well. Same with chemical and mechanical analyses. “So we have now a material that resembles rhino horn in many ways.”

Given a virtually indistinguishable knockoff, could conservationists create a new market and lower the demand for real rhino horns?

That’s where the economics get tricky. Some conservationists worry the fake horn will end up functioning like an ad for genuine snout protrusions. “It could grow a greater market demand and mainstream the trade to a whole new generation and niche of consumers,” says the World Wildlife Fund’s Crawford Allan, senior director for Traffic, its trade monitoring network.

Courtesy of Fritz Vollrath

Rhino horn is sought after for one of two things. In Chinese traditional medicine, it’s used as a fever remedy—not, as you may have heard, as an aphrodisiac. It is also popular in Vietnam, where people pursue it more as a status piece.

“There is no place in either of those markets for some kind of artificial rhino horn,” says Jon Taylor, deputy director of Save the Rhino International. “Every conservation organization working in Asia, both the international ones and the Asian organizations, are working on demand reduction, trying to educate people not to use rhino horn. If it’s medicinal, you can use something else. And if it’s a status symbol, just don’t.”

The core of the problem is there’s no precedent. No one has made perfect replicas of rhino horns, flooded the market, and watched what happened. “We are not yet at a stage where we fully understand how synthetic horns might be perceived by consumers—i.e., whether they would be associated with being luxury goods in the same manner as real horns,” writes American University of Sharjah economist Adrian Lopes, who studies the rhino horn trade, in an email.

A section of rhino horn showing the hairs, a cross-section at top right and a lengthwise run at bottom right.

Courtesy of Jonathan Kingdon

If the replications are perfect, maybe they could replace real rhino horns in the market entirely. But if they’re distinguishable, the ultra-rich will still pay a premium for the real thing. Returning to the analog of fake designer bags, people buy the knockoffs as status symbols knowing full well they’re getting a fake, whereas the rich continue to buy the genuine product. So fake rhino horns might attract buyers who just want to fool their friends into thinking they’ve acquired an ultra-exclusive product, while the rich continue to drive demand for the real thing. “Although the availability of faux bags may reduce the demand for genuine bags for some segment of the market,” says Lopes, “there will always be other consumers who are willing to pay the price for the real stuff.”

An additional problem: Distributing something branded as rhino horn, even if it’s not real, is illegal under international law. “If the fake is really, really good, you’re going to make life incredibly difficult for the law-enforcement guys who are trying to pick up the genuinely poached, smuggled rhino horn,” adds Taylor.

Vollrath, though, notes a number of economists were consulted as the scientists developed their fake rhino horn. “Conservationists say ‘Oh no, this will just make it harder on the rhinos,’” says Vollrath. “The economists say if you flood the market with something, it will have an effect on the price—it will go down. Maybe it makes the real ones more valuable, but I don’t see how it could make them even more valuable than they are already.”

If you really want to attack the market, according to Taylor, you have to do work on the ground. That means leveraging social media to educate, getting practitioners of traditional medicine to hawk sustainable alternatives to rhino horn, and disrupting trade routes, for instance by engaging with security on both sides of the China-Vietnam border.

Change won’t come from the lab, Taylor says: “Honestly, I think it’s one of those things where they’ve been thinking very hard about whether they can, and probably not quite that hard about whether they should.”

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