Why is this interesting? - The Rhino Horn Edition

On conservation, markets, and bold tactics

Colin here. We’ve covered African conservation a lot in WITI. In the case of the rhino, there’s ravenous demand for ivory, which the animal is often killed for. A kilogram of this material can command as much as $60,000. There’s demand in China for traditional medicines and aphrodisiacs (even though there is no proof that it works other than a placebo), and the material also funds arms for guerilla armies across the continent. 

But a tried and true tactic to alter a market is to flood it with fakes. This, conservationists hope, would reduce the value of real horns and thus the incentive to hunt rhinos in the first place. According to the Economist:

Fritz Vollrath, a zoologist at Oxford University, reckons his skills as a forger are up to the challenge. As he writes in Scientific Reports, he and his colleagues from Fudan University, in Shanghai, have come up with a cheap and easy-to-make knock-off that is strikingly similar to the real thing.

The main ingredient of Dr Vollrath’s forged horns is horsehair. Despite their differing appearances, horses and rhinos are reasonably closely related. Horses do not have horns, of course. But, technically, neither do rhinos. Unlike the structures that adorn cattle and bison, which have cores made of bone, the “horns” of rhinoceros are composed of hairs bound tightly together by a mixture of dead cells.

Examination under a microscope showed that hairs collected from horses’ tails had similar dimensions and symmetry to those found in the horns of rhinos. They also shared a spongy core structure. The only thing that set the two apart was a scaly layer on the horse hairs that was absent from those of the rhino. This, the researchers were able to strip this away by bathing their horse hairs in a solution of lithium bromide.

Why is this interesting?

Most of the illicit Rhino trade happens in dusty warehouses and back rooms, so some of the more sophisticated testing to verify authenticity couldn’t be easily done. Also, as the Economist points out, “there isn’t an official body to verify authenticity” as there is with, say, diamonds. 

Perhaps most interesting, the people behind the fake horns want it to be open-sourced. As they explain, “It appears from our investigation that it is rather easy as well as cheap to make a bio-inspired hornlike material that mimics the rhino's extravagantly expensive tuft of nose hair. We leave it to others to develop this technology further with the aim to confuse the trade, depress prices and thus support rhino conservation.” So, in essence, they are making a call for this technology to be developed and opened up, ideally flooding the market with fakes and de-valuing illicit ivory in the process. 

Will it work? I think it’s only reasonable to approach a solution like this with a heavy dose of skepticism. If we’ve learned anything about technology and culture over the last few years it’s that second- and third-order effects can be hard to predict. In fact, there’s already ivory tests being prototyped that get to a result in 24 hours. Also, there’s sure to be a hack or workaround like testing ivory with UV light to assess if it is real. With that said, when you’ve got a problem like poaching, that has complex cultural and political dynamics, and dire consequences of inaction, as evidenced by the ever-decreasing number of wild rhinos, it’s hard not to appreciate a bold move like this one. (CJN)

Chart of the Day:

Where your favorite shows are moving (via Naveen). (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)


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