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Fighting Poaching with Convincing Fakes

photo of a scientist using stem cells to create a rhino synthetic horn in our attempt to fighting poaching

About one million species of plants and animals are at the risk of being wiped out. Globally, the last five decades have seen a rapid decrease in the population of wildlife. Biodiversity has declined by 60 percent, and we are the culprit. The natural habitats of various species were destroyed by massive pollution and excessive consumption. To make matters worse, hunting and poaching have pushed many animals to extinction. Nature is in trouble, and urgent measures are needed. Thankfully, science has come to the rescue!

cartoon of a merchant selling a rhino synthetic horn to a poacher while a rhino and a horse high-fives while in hiding
With urgent measures needed to help our planet, how exactly will we fight poaching with the use of convincing fakes?

Breaking into the Market: When Faux is not the Foe

For decades, fighting poaching has been a discouraging battle. While international laws have been enacted to protect endangered species, authorities have been still unsuccessful in fighting poaching. Elephant ivory, rhinoceros’ horns, and pangolin shells—to name a few—are smuggled in large volumes. Undoubtedly, the black market is bustling. Why? The demand for these prized animal appendages is high. With high demand, poachers are encouraged to intensify the hunting and poaching. Animals are hunted and killed before they can even reproduce. With dwindling resources, animal’s appendages become rarer, thus more expensive.

Under this condition of high demand-low supply, a vicious cycle ensues. To break this cycle, researchers are proposing a novel way of fighting poaching. The plan: To flood the black market with convincing fakes. With the discovery of the technology that can create fabricated shells and synthetic horn that so resembles the real thing—buyers and traders will not be able to distinguish the difference.

photo quote containing an excerpt from a 2018 report from WWF that is in relation to our attempt in fighting poaching
Sadly, the last five decades have seen a rapid decrease in the population of wildlife.

The Business of Hunting and Poaching

Fighting Poaching Infographic

Fighting Poaching Infographic

Rhinoceros’ horns are highly priced items. Many use it as a luxurious material for carving handles, doorknobs, and other sculptures. While rhinoceros’ horns are widely appreciated for its beauty, this animal appendage is a valuable ingredient in eastern medicine. In China and other parts of Asia, rhinoceros’ horns are a cure-all for a wide array of afflictions such as typhoid, fever, dysentery, hallucinations, nightmares and convulsions.

Elephants suffer the same fate. This benign creature has been hunted and pursued for their tusks. Ivory tusks are prized goods because of their aesthetic value, durability and receptiveness to carving. From buttons to needles to piano keys, ivory can be used in so many ways. With this demand, the price tag for a pound of an elephant tusk can fetch thousands of dollars. Consequently, thousands of elephants are slaughtered every year.

The scales of pangolin—the world’s most smuggled mammal—is used as an ingredient in traditional medicine. Many believe that pangolin scales can cure arthritis, stomach disorders, and convulsions, as well as stimulate lactation for nursing mothers. Other parts of pangolin are used as materials for luxury goods and exotic delicacies. Due to excessive poaching and hunting, all eight species of pangolin have been classified as endangered.

Fighting Poaching with Synthetic Horn, Faux Scales and Manufactured Shells

Banking on the theories of supply and demand, researchers put forth the goal of decreasing the value by flooding the market with a surplus of rhino synthetic horn and fake elephant tusks. Without much financial incentive, poachers are discouraged from obtaining these animal parts through hunting. From this concept, various methods are being explored:

  1. Pembient’s goal is to 3D-print rhino synthetic horn using an ink made of keratin. The company went a step further by infusing their materials with rhino DNA. With Pembient’s bioengineering technology, rhino synthetic horn should be biologically identical with a real rhino horn.
  2. University of Oxford and Fudan University Shanghai published a joint project that creates rhino synthetic horn from horsehair. Researchers Ruixin Mi, Z. Z. Shao, and F. Vollrath have built a solid composite cylinder of hair-horn through tightly packed horsehair infused with a chemical solution. The result, a rhino synthetic horn comparable to the chemical keratin composition of a real rhinoceros’ horn.
  3. On another research, the same team from the University of Oxford and Fudan University Shanghai are working on various types of silk in creating ivory-like blocks. Soon, bigger pieces will be bio-manufactured. The possibility that an alternative material to elephant tusk is looming on the horizon.
  4. Ceratotech is working on perfecting the use of stem cell technology as a means to fighting poaching. The technology works by converting rhino skin cells into keratinocytes and bioengineering it to develop into any cell of the body. For this purpose: grow the cell into a rhino horn.

Going into the Fight with A Synthetic Horn Is Just the Beginning

Previous studies have confirmed that tusks, teeth and scales are made up of keratin—the same protein that is found in fingernails, hooves, claws and skin. More tests and studies are needed to prove the potency of keratin in curing illnesses. Without credible scientific studies, claims that these items can cure diseases can be delegated as a mere placebo effect. Most significantly, people’s fascination toward these animal parts is cultural in nature. The rarity of the items and the steep price tag make these items a glorified status symbol.

Flooding the market with rhinoceros synthetic horn and fabricated tusks have been receiving tepid responses from environmentalists. The method, according to conservationists, may have unintended consequences down the road. However, with the thousands of animal deaths every year and possible extinction of species, utilizing convincing fakes as a means to fighting poaching could be worth the try.

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