What is poaching?
Poaching is the illegal hunting or capturing of wild animals. This happens for many reasons, e.g. baby animals may be captured to become pets. However, poaching often happens because of demand for specific animal body parts, like elephant tusks or rhino horns.
There is demand for these animal body parts around the world. For example, in China and Vietnam, some people think that rhino horns cure diseases like cancer and arthritis. They are therefore willing to pay high prices for the horns. However, scientific research has proven that they have no medicinal properties. Rhino horns are made of keratin (the same thing that forms fingernails), and therefore don’t have special properties.
Many people also think owning products of poaching is a symbol of wealth. Animal parts like rhino horns are often carved into jewelry and decorations, and gifted. Due to this, demand for rhino horn is increasing.
The consequences of poaching
Poaching could lead to the extinction (the entire species dying) of animals like elephants and rhinos. To obtain rhino horns, poachers tranquilise (knock out using chemicals) the animal, cut off the horn and leave the rhino to die. The current population of rhinos in Africa is 24,500. However, in 2018, 769 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone.
Governments and conservation groups use many methods to try and stop poaching. National park rangers risk getting shot by poachers to protect the animals. Officials try to catch poachers when they are smuggling products out of the country. However, scientists are coming up with methods that tackle the problem in a different way.
Fake rhino horns
Scientists in England and China have produced highly realistic fake rhino horns. They use horse tail hair, held together by a special silk like glue produced in a laboratory. These fake horns look the same as rhino horns when cut, shaved, and even under a microscope. It is chemically similar to the real thing, and smells the same when burnt.
If these fake rhino horns can be sold on the black market, the product will be devalued. If more rhino horn (whether fake or real) is available on the market, it would make it less expensive. Since most poachers are motivated by profits, this would reduce the incentive for poaching.
Potential issues with fake rhino horns
However, some conservation groups are worried that the fake rhino horns may not be an effective way to reduce poaching. The fake horns may make customers willing to pay more to ensure they are getting real horns. This would encourage poachers to catch more rhinos. These groups suggest focusing on directly stopping poaching, or educating people to reduce demand for rhino horns.
The scientists that created the fake rhino horn have said that they don’t want the fake horns to replace current anti-poaching efforts. They see this as an additional method to use together with direct anti-poaching tactics. Experts in different subject areas (scientists, conservation groups and governments) should collaborate to help combat poaching.