Have Scientists Figured Out How to Stop the Poaching of Rhinos or Will They Just Make the Problem Worse? June 21, 2015

Have Scientists Figured Out How to Stop the Poaching of Rhinos or Will They Just Make the Problem Worse?

As a vegetarian, the idea of artificial meat is fascinating to me. If scientists could make fake meat that looked, smelled, and tasted like the real thing, perhaps it would lead to less cruelty against living animals.

Then you think about what’s happening to South African rhinos. They’re being killed off for their horns, because people in China and Vietnam use them in “designer party drugs” and marketed as a potential cure for cancer. So superstition and irrational thinking is pushing this species to the brink of extinction.

But scientists may have discovered a way to stop the bleeding.

A San Francisco biotech startup has managed to 3D print fake rhino horns that carry the same genetic fingerprint as the actual horn. It plans to flood Chinese market with these cheap horns to curb poaching.

Matthew Markus, CEO of Pembient says his company will sell rhino horns at one-eighth of the price of the original, undercutting the price poachers can get and forcing them out eventually.

It sounds amazing: a way for science to eliminate the need to kill these animals! However, Susie Ellis, Executive director of the International Rhino Foundation, says this whole plan may actually backfire:

Selling synthetic horn does not reduce the demand for rhino horn [and] could lead to more poaching because it increases the demand for “the real thing.” In addition, production of synthetic horn encourages its purported medicinal value, even though science does not support any medical benefits. And, importantly, questions arise as to how law enforcement authorities will be able to detect the difference between synthetic and real horn, especially if they are sold as powder or in manufactured products.

So there’s a debate for you: Would creating synthetic horns increase the desire for horns overall, making the problem worse? Would it stop the need for poaching or just create a larger market for it?

Given that doing nothing is leading the way to extinction right now, it seems like the synthetic approach is at least worth a shot. If it doesn’t work, we’re virtually back to square one. If it does, science just found a way to save a species through clever manipulation.

Either way, this is the sort of discussion I wish we saw more of in the media. It’s not the fake kind of “debate” pushed by Creationists over whether establishes science is legitimate. It’s two groups working toward a common goal — reducing the poaching of these rhinos — who hold different beliefs about whether a particular method will achieve it.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link)

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