Save the Rhino

America has only slightly and slowly adopted the metric system. Setting aside the scientists, it has barely gone mainstream. Oddly, however, some folks on the margins have completely converted and measure their products in kilograms. Heroin, for example, or cocaine, or rhino horn.

You might cavil at including rhino horn with those high-priced and addictive drugs, but consider this: If you went to China to buy your heroin, it would cost you about $66,000 per kilogram. Shopping the same black market, rhino horn would cost you $100,000 per kilogram.

Now it happens I have a totally irrational love of rhinos. It makes me simply crazy that they are being driven to extinction because some Asian folks with lots of money believe a little rhino horn powder will cure what ails them…like impotence.

But, as our drug enforcement people have learned (even if our politicians have not), any market with those sorts of prices and profits cannot be easily suppressed. All the way down the supply chain, enough money is available to keep the suppliers, smugglers, middlemen, etc. in business, whatever the risk.

The point, of course, is that when there is a high enough demand the market will adjust the prices up to whatever level it takes to keep the products flowing. In the case of addictive drugs, I have no idea what can be done to break this supply and demand cycle. But in the case of rhino horn, I do have an idea. There might be some technical problems, but from an economic perspective, it seems solid: monkey-wrench the market.

How do you do this, you ask? Well, let me explain.

Step One:

To start out, let’s look at the rhino horn itself. Rhino horn, despite what you may have heard, is not made of compressed hair. It is almost entirely made of keratin, the protein that is the key structural material of skin and nails.

Why then does a rhino horn look hairy?

Because the keratin in rhino horn is organized into tubules. These organized strands are embedded in an unorganized keratin matrix. (If that’s confusing, imagine a bunch of plastic fibers glued together with melted plastic.) If you were to look at a section of rhino horn under a microscope, you would clearly see round tubules (diameter 300μ – 500μ) all bunched together, with the gaps in between filled with yet more keratin. As the rhino wears its horn down, the tubules emerge on the surface, accounting for the “hairy” look.

So, what does this have to do with saving the rhinos by monkey-wrenching the black market? Just this: rhino horns are not the only things made of keratin tubules. Cow hooves, pig’s feet, whale baleen, are all made from keratin. Granted, the size of the tubules and the trace elements present are different, but the base material is the same.

Step Two:

Now let me digress for a moment into the rhino horn market. According to the web, in 2013 something over 1000 rhinos were butchered for their horns. Figuring roughly 2 kilos of horn per rhino, that means the black market supply for that years was something like a measly 2000 kilograms. That small supply explains the astronomical price on the black market. It is practically a perfect demonstration of supply and demand economics when the supply is very small and the demand very high.

But such a market situation has a problem: It is unstable. That is, the price is acutely sensitive to supply. Kill a few hundred more rhinos and the price might drop dramatically. But we don’t want to kill more rhinos. We want fewer rhinos killed.

Step Three:

Now suppose, using keratin from one of those other animal sources, you made some fake rhino horn that could pass chemical and physical analysis on the black market. If you could slip this into the supply chain, you would be increasing the supply (and thereby lowering the price) without killing any rhinos.

It is obviously nearly impossible to actually make complete rhino horns, with hairy tubules and all, that would pass muster. But remember, rhino horn is largely consumed as a powder. So the question resolves itself into this: Is it possible to make fake rhino horn powder?

Suppose you did a careful analysis of a rhino horn. You’d find lots and lots of keratin, a fair amount of calcium, some melanin, other trace elements, and some rhino DNA. Now imagine you take, say, a bunch of cattle hooves from the slaughterhouse (actually you could buy them from your pet store – they make great chew-toys). You shave off very thin slices and grind the result into powder. Add some calcium, some melanin and the other trace elements. Extract all the donor DNA (I’m leaving out lots of problematic steps here). Go out to your local zoo and either get a blood sample from a rhino or a big pile of rhino dung and extract the rhino DNA from it. Add that to your keratin mix and blend well.

Voila! Powdered rhino horn, ripe for the black market. Make enough of it and you would see the price drop off. That drop would ripple down the supply chain, making it less and less profitable and less and less worth the risk to be a poacher.

At this point, if you’ve got the sense God gave a goose, you’re going, “Sure. I’ll bet it would be just that easy. And I’ve got a bridge I want to sell you.”

Of course not. So what we would need to do first is a small-scale feasibility study to determine if, a) the technical problems can be solved, b) can such a product be slipped into the black market and, c) what would it all cost?

Fortunately, we happen to have a first-class zoo here in town and a first-class research establishment (the Institute for Conservation Research) associated with the zoo. I don’t think there is any question but that they could conduct a top-notch feasibility study for a reasonable amount of money.

What to do about it? Turns out I happen to know a few people at the Institute. So I rough-drafted a proposal and sent it off to the Institute’s Director with high hopes. Granted, it was way outside their usual bailiwick, but surely the opportunity to save rhino lives was worth the stretch.

Nope. Even offering to help drum up some funding for the project was not enough to persuade them to go outside their usual projects. Or maybe they just didn’t believe in the potential. I really don’t know.

So here I sit, with a project simply bursting with potential (I think), but no takers. I’m sure there has to be somebody, either local or not so local, with the resources and impulse to at least try to test whether its feasible or not.

Any ideas?

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