Sunday, 26 July 2015

Can technology save the rhinos?

I've written several posts now on saving endangered species (see here and here and here). Mostly those posts are about the ineffectiveness of proposed interventions, like burning ivory (which increases the price of ivory, and leads to more poaching, not less).

This post is about two of the latest proposed technological solutions for saving rhinos. The first proposed solution is using 3D printing to create and flood the market with fake rhino horns:
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...
Susie Ellis, Executive director of International Rhino Foundation says: "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."
This solution has some potential. Fake 3D-printed rhino horn will be a very close (but probably not perfect) substitute for authentic rhino horn (it won't be a perfect substitute because no doubt some buyers would retain a preference for the 'real thing'). Consumers tend to switch from higher-priced to lower-priced substitutes, which would mean introducing fake rhino horn into the market would reduce the demand for authentic rhino horn. Or maybe not.

What if flooding the market with fake 3D-printed rhino horn turns authentic rhino horn into a symbol of high status? Since anyone can buy the cheap fake rhino horn, authentic rhino horn becomes even more valuable than before - essentially it becomes a Veblen good. Veblen goods are luxury goods where the price is a signal of the high status of the purchaser. In this case, when the price goes up people the good is an even more powerful signal of high status, and so consumers who are seeking status demand more of the good. However, one key characteristic of Veblen goods is that they rely on conspicuous consumption - it's no good buying the good if no one knows you bought it. This might be difficult if consuming rhino horn is made illegal, which China has just done.

The second proposed technological solution is attaching hidden cameras to rhinos:
A British team has developed a system to help protect wild rhinos, which could be extinct within the next ten years, because they are hunted by poachers for their lucrative horns.
By using a combination of GPS trackers, heart rate monitors and hidden cameras, wardens can be on site to foil an attack within seconds.
Cameras are embedded inside the horn of the rhino, in what researchers say is a painless procedure.
In theory, embedding GPS trackers and hidden cameras increase the costs for poachers, reducing the supply of rhino horns. However as I've noted before, reducing supply simply increases the price, and increases the incentives for poaching. The higher prices for rhino horn will likely spur innovation on the part of the poachers - how long before poachers would start tranquilising the rhinos so that the camera isn't activated? Or, since we're talking about technological solutions, maybe future poachers start using EMPs to disable the cameras and trackers? Either way, this wouldn't appear to be a long-run solution to rhino poaching.

For rhinos, or elephants, I'm still in favour of farming as a solution.

[HT: Marginal Revolution, here and here]

More on endangered species from my blog :

No comments:

Post a Comment