Fake rhino horn – the answer to stopping the poaching or encouragement to an illegal trade?
With rhinos numbers being decimated by illegal poaching the race was on to find an idea to reduce or stop poaching and save rhinos from being killed for their horns.
A couple of years ago researchers and scientists produced a fake horn made out of horsehair by gluing together horse tail hair, stripping it of its outer layer, and forming what they said was a realistic substitute. It was also very cheap to make.
The idea was to produce large volumes of this fake rhino horn be able to sell it at a cheaper cost and flood the market. By flooding the market and bringing the cost down by a cheaper alternative would in theory decrease the need for poaching of horn in Africa for markets in Asia.
Alternatively, consumers learning about fake horns within the market may be more hesitant to buy rhino horns because they are not sure if they are getting the real deal. With less demand, there would be less need for poaching, again possibly bringing the poaching numbers down.
However, organisations such as Born Free became increasingly worried by this attempt to confuse the trade, depress prices, and thus support rhino conservation.
Illegal wildlife trade markets are incredibly complex with many players and nuances because this is how they operate to be able to stay under the radar of the authorities and law enforcement. Therefore flooding the market with a fake substance could have the opposite effect where it actually further stimulates the demand. Buyers may not even know or care that it’s fake but suddenly rhino horn is cheaper and so even more people can afford to buy it.
With the two main consuming countries Vietnam and China having populations of 96 million and 1.4 billion respectively and both with populations that use traditional medicines frequently and becoming more affluent countries, there is no way the product could possibly attempt to flood such a large potential market.
Then there is all the hard work by the authorities, law enforcement, and conservation organisations in battling poaching to find and detect rhino horn through travel routes within shipments which would then undermine all these efforts and make it incredibly difficult for law enforcement to keep a ban on the trade and be able to make prosecutions. Could buyers and users then claim they were using fake horn and therefore this cannot be illegal and therefore avoid prosecution?
The major problem with this and even the idea of harvesting horn and selling it legally is you have to make the decision of what aspect of the market for rhino horn is okay. And this is a bit like letting the genie out of the bottle because once a decision has been made to legalise any aspect of an illegal trade how do you go back if it does not work as expected.
This is what happens when you put these fake products (or limited real products) up for sale. The market is more likely to expand than contract. This has been seen before in the surge of elephant poaching after a one-off sale of ivory tusks in 2008. This was meant to flood the market and reduce the profitability of poaching but it backfired. Elephants had begun to recover before that, but today they’re back in crisis, where elephants are being poached for their tusks.
The fight to save and protect rhino has been long, hard, and very costly on many fronts, however, the last couple of years has seen a decrease in the numbers poached, so it looks like all the real on the groundwork by dedicated reserves, anti-poaching teams, use of technology, etc. is making an impact on the war on poaching. This is where the effort has produced real results and while thinking out of the box to solve problems is a great tool, sometimes it’s best to leave the solutions to what we know best.