(USA)

Synthetic biology could hold the key to ending the mass slaughter of rhinos, according to new research.

Demand has for rhino horn has shot up in recent years. Newly wealthy Asian countries use them in traditional medicines and this is increasing the number of killings.

“The thinking is that if bio-identical synthetic horns are available at a substantially lower price than wild horns, people will choose to buy synthetic ones, which will reduce incentives to poach rhinos,” said Wake Forest University economist Frederick Chen.

In a research paper published last month, Chen said it could be wiser though to engineer poorer quality horns that buyers were unable to distinguish from the real thing. The argument goes that this could cut demand – and prices – as consumers might not buy them at all if it was impossible to differentiate between a genuine and a fake.

Chen explained: “This proposal makes use of a phenomenon in economics known as adverse selection, which occurs when buyers in a market are unable to distinguish between high and low-quality products. This lack of information can drive down prices enough that high-quality products, which in this case would be real rhino horns, would cease to be supplied by sellers.”

He recommends in his research that to deliver more protection for rhinos, governments need to bring forward a range of new policies and incentives. These include offering subsidies to businesses producing synthetic horns; increasing competition to drive up production; and making it cheaper for nonprofits to buy the technology needed to make fake horns and contribute to driving prices down.

Chen added: “The main lesson provided by these results is that the market structure of the synthetic horn sector and the type of synthetic horns that are produced matter greatly in determining how much – and what kind of – effect the availability of synthetic horns would have on wild horn supply.”