Can Fake Rhino Horns Bring an End to Illegal Rhino Poaching?
Thu, April 22, 2021

Can Fake Rhino Horns Bring an End to Illegal Rhino Poaching?

One of the major threats to rhino populations is habitat loss. Throughout the years, more and more land is cleared for agriculture, leaving less available for them / Photo by: JONATHAN PLEDGER via Shutterstock

 

There was a time when rhinos roamed freely on Earth. These giants have been around for more than 40 million years – far longer than humans. They are solid proof of prehistoric times, a glimpse of life in the Pleistocene, and a relic from a long-ago era. However, rhinos are more than just a time capsule.

Previous studies show that rhinos, just like other large species, are key distributors of nutrients in the hydrological cycle. They also play an important role in tourism as one of the “Big Five” game animals, alongside the lion, leopard, elephant, and Cape buffalo. Unfortunately, their time on our planet can soon be over as rhinos are listed among critically endangered species. At the start of the 20th century, there were over 500,000 rhinos. Now, less than 30,000 rhinos are living in the wild. 

According to Helping Rhinos, an organization that applies an innovative and forward-thinking approach to conservation, two out of three rhino species are found in Asia and are critically endangered – the Javan and Sumatran rhino. Reports show that there are only 65 Javan rhinos and around 100 Sumatran rhinos. The Black rhino is also critically endangered with only around 5,000 remaining in the wild.

One of the major threats to rhino populations is habitat loss. Throughout the years, more and more land is cleared for agriculture, leaving less available for them. These animals need a large area where they can roam and live peacefully. If rhino populations end up fragmented, the chances of successful breeding and recovery will decline further. However, the principal cause of the species’ endangerment and decline is the illegal hunting of their horns. 

Illegal Poaching of Rhino Horn

Since 2007, the poaching and illegal trafficking of rhino horn have increased. This remains one of the major reasons why they are endangered today. While rhino horns are widely used in traditional Chinese medicine, it has become a status symbol to display success and wealth. South Africa holds almost 80% of the world’s rhinos and has been the country hit hardest by poaching criminals. Between 2013 and 2017, there were more than 1,000 rhinos killed each year due to poaching. 

The main reason rhino poaching still exists is that it is a huge market. At its peak, rhino horn was selling for up to $65,000 per kg, which is more than the sales of cocaine or gold. The price over recent years has dropped to close to $25,000 per kg. Nonetheless, many organized criminal gangs and hunters are still hunting these species as they are well-equipped to track and kill rhinos. 

Although the rhino horn trade has been banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) since 1977, the market for rhino horn is still increasing. Studies done by illegal wildlife trade organizations reveal that the demand for rhino horn is independent of price. This means that no matter what the price is, people would still buy the rhino horns to show off their wealth. Consumers even prefer wild rhino horn over farmed rhino horn. They are not concerned about the dwindling rhino populations. This suggests that the demand for rhino horn will continue because people’s beliefs are firmly entrenched.

Fake Rhino Horns

Over the years, some governments and advocates have been initiating efforts to stop illegal poaching to save the rhino populations. Recently, researchers at the University of Oxford and Fudan University in China have discovered a way of creating fake rhino horn cheaply from horsehair. According to BBC, a British free-to-air television news channel, they have developed a technique to make fakes that would “confuse the trade.” This is after experts suggested to “swamp the market with fakes.”

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

The researchers decided to use horsehair because horses are a close cousin to the rhinos. They used a silk-based substance as “glue” that can emulate the material. According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, Vollrath stated that the end material can easily be molded into a rhino horn shape. These fake rhino horns are not only easy to make but also relatively cheap. While there have been previous ideas for a fake horn, this project aims to achieve a material that can be cheaply mass-produced.

In 2015, San Francisco-based startup Pembient had planned to bioengineer fake rhino horn that artists could carve into lifestyle items, including liberation cups, jewelry, and chopsticks. However, many conservationists criticized this idea because they believed that fake rhino horns wouldn't solve the poaching problem and could even worsen it.

The recent study has also received some backlash. Dr. Richard Thomas from the wildlife organization Traffic stated it can pose considerable risks. “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,” he said.

Instead, experts stated that the best way to solve rhino poaching is to reduce its demand. This could be achieved by changing long-term consumer behavior as well as through strong enforcement measures. 

Recently, researchers at the University of Oxford and Fudan University in China have discovered a way of creating fake rhino horn cheaply from horsehair / Photo by: Paul Fleet via Shutterstock