A recent BBC article reported that researchers at the University of Oxford and Fudan University in China have found a way of making fake rhino horn cheaply from horse hair.
The idea behind the research is that they could flood the market with cheap, fake rhino horn to drive down the price and make poaching rhinos in the wild less attractive.
While on the face of it this argument makes sense, a number of people involved in conservation have raised concerns about the efficacy of the approach.
My main concern is that they have misunderstood the market. Rhino Horn is increasingly purchased as a status symbol in Asia, so a high price for the ‘real thing’ will continue to drive demand for rhino horn.
An example comes from the market in diamonds – fake diamonds that are indiscernible from the real thing to all but the best-trained eyes are now available, at a fraction of the cost of a real diamond. Yet demand for fake diamonds remains low, used more for high performance drills than wedding rings – the symbol of an expensive wedding ring is more important than saving money, so the more expensive the diamond in the ring, the more it is valued. Similarly, there are a lot of fake Rolex watches on the market but is has not diminished the status or desirability of the real thing.
The fear is that the rhino horn market is the same and that this fake horn will simply expand the market at the lower end, for example the use of horn in traditional Chinese medicine, while doing nothing to temper demand for the real thing at the high-value end of the market.
Worse, it could send a signal that purchasing rhino horn is acceptable and make it even harder than it already is to identify and stop the illegal trade in real horn because there is so much fake horn passing itself off as the real thing.
Fundamentally, however, the sale of fake rhino horn misses the key point; the major problem with wildlife conservation is that it is easy to spend money on products that kill wildlife and that killing costs little, often just a few hundred dollars. In contrast, it is much harder to spend money on products that protect wildlife – because there are so few available – and that protection is very expensive, requiring teams of rangers working 24/7 to protect vast swathes of lands. The rangers must be everywhere all the time to protect, the poachers only need to be in the right place at the right time once to kill.
We therefore have a highly asymmetric market where those seeking to kill animals and trade their products face low costs and can fetch high prices, whereas those who protect animals face high costs and have few ways of generating money for their conservation work.
The only way to solve that is to develop more products and services that people can buy that protect wildlife; that requires a massive and rapid expansion of ethical businesses committed to protecting wildlife.
So, instead of fake rhino horn we should be working to develop high-value products that offer consumers the same status symbol as with rhino horn, but which protect rhinos. For example, a Rolex watch where the dials are in the shape of rhino horns and every individual watch is named after one particular rhino living in the wild, with £2,000 from every sale donated to protect that rhino.
Not only would that generate funds for conservation, but it also creates a profitable incentive to fund rhino-horn demand reduction campaigns. Instead of conservation organisations with small budgets financing campaigns to tell people not to buy rhino horn, businesses could entice them to buy a ‘Rhino-Rolex’ watch instead, creating a shift in mindset that makes the watches the new status symbol instead of rhino horn. Because there is money to be made from the success of such a campaign in the form of watch sales, more can be spent on marketing and the great advertising minds of the world can then be hired to produce the campaigns needed to achieve such a change.
So, while fake rhino horn may help protect rhinos, there a big risks associated with it. Developing businesses selling products that help protect wildlife is a safer, more scalable and more effective approach.
By way of example, Rolex make 800,000 watches a year. If each of those included a donation of just £62.50, that would raise £50 million a year for conservation. That is more than WWF UK’s entire annual income.