Rhinos are worth more dead than alive. In South Africa, owning a rhino is a liability rather than a privilege. This is because rhinoceros horn is revered in some countries as a medicine and status symbol that promotes health, wealth, and prosperity. A kilogram of horn can cost up to $65 000, exceeding the value of gold, diamonds, or cocaine. This fountain of youth, however, is sure to dry up sooner rather than later. There has been an exponential increase in rhino poaching, especially in Namibia, Kenya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, the four countries that collectively host 98.8% of all rhinos in Africa. Only three of five species of rhino remain, and one of those – the northern white rhino – is extinct in the wild with only three non-breeding individuals left in captivity.
Biotechnology companies in the U.S. and China, in effort to reduce rhino poaching, are looking to manufacture and distribute artificial rhino horn that closely mimics the real thing. These companies aim at creating fake horn that is indistinguishable in appearance and composition from real rhino horn. One of these companies, California-based Pembient Bioengineered Wildlife Products, aims to fight poaching by replacing the illegal wildlife trade. Pembient cofounder and CEO Matthew Markus argues that flooding the market with a steady supply of fake horn will keep prices low, thereby decreasing poaching profits.
Many think artificial horn is a promising alternative, but it might prove to be more of a Trojan Horse. There is no evidence that the distribution of artificial rhino horn will stop poaching. Instead it is likely to increase the demand for and harvest of real, genuine horn. There are many other concerns related to the use and distribution of fake horn. For example, selling fake horn may falsely back the unproven notion that rhino horn has medicinal properties. The distribution and sale of fake horn will be difficult to regulate, and may create or strengthen avenues of illegal international trade of endangered animal products, providing a loophole to illegal traffickers.
As the Commission on Life Sciences eloquently put it more than three decades ago, we can solve ecological problems by using approaches that focus on either the symptoms or the causes of those problems. In the case of rhino poaching, one can argue that the value of rhino horn, be it medicinal or status orientated, provides an incentive that causes the problem. Addressing the symptoms of the rhino poaching problem would mean trying to find ways of satisfying the demand for rhino horn, for example by substituting real horn with manufactured synthetic horn. Such approaches differ from approaches that aim at addressing the cause of the problem by decreasing demand.
This is troubling when you consider that rhino poaching is increasing at an unprecedented rate, and subsequent symptoms are also likely to intensify as poaching increases. Imagine then how the cause of poaching – the value of rhino horn – will be further increased by the demand for pure, authentic horn. Flooding the market with fake horn will likely lead to an increase in the value of real horn, fortifying the cause of the problem as consumers pay more and more to guarantee the authenticity of the product that they are buying. Ultimately, this may result in an even more radical demand for horn.
How then should we deal with the cause of rhino poaching? Simple, decrease the demand for rhino horn. This will automatically nullify the need to find alternative solutions such as fake rhino horn. There should be a focus on awareness, education, and international diplomacy, specifically targeting consumers of rhino horn. Money and time spent on the manufacturing of fake horn or alternative solutions could be directly implemented in educational programs that can liberate horn users.
Unlike artificial horn, educating and creating policy coalitions with consumers and consumer countries can impact the root of the problem by ultimately lessening the demand for rhino horn. Addressing causes rather than symptoms will result in sustainable solutions for ecological problems. We should follow the advice of American writer Anthony J. D’Angelo: “When solving problems, dig at the roots instead of just hacking at the leaves.”
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Written by Alida de Flamingh