Is "fake" a four-letter word; ask the rhinoceros

“Fakes”, “deceptions”, “knockoffs” and more. Whatever you call it, our IP instinct is to condemn such activities as going over to the Dark Side. Oh, that the world would be so black and white. And when it comes to the rhinoceros, the possibility of “fake” with respect to its horns may be the last best hope to preserve this endangered species. Indeed, the story of fake rhinoceros horns is another example of the “grey” that can color our view of such behavior.

Consider the Book of Genesis from the Old Testament. There, the narrative describes how Jacob conspires with his mother, Rebecca, to mislead Isaac into giving to Jacob the blessing of the first born. This was done by Jacob deceiving Isaac into thinking that Jacob was, in fact, his brother Esau.

The tradition seeks to confront this ruse by offering various explanations how it was necessary for the preservation of the Patriarchy. Moreover, Jacob was "punished', in a way, since he himself was deceived about how long he would have to work until he could later marry Rachel, here. Still, however one views this Biblical event, Jacob and Rebecca intentionally deceived Isaac .

Closer to home, several years ago this Kat discussed the 1990 exhibition at the British Museum entitled "Fake? The Art of Deception", which explored the multi-faceted nature of fakes. At the time we wrote:
Fakes come in at least three kinds. One is the making of a faithful copy of the original. Another is to take the original object and to add additional material and content. Yet another is to create an object in such a way as to give that false impression of past provenance.
Here, as well, the status of intentionally deceptive conduct may well ultimately depend upon the specific circumstances.

Which brings us to the rhinoceros and its horns, as recently reported by The Economist (“Fooled You: A realistic knock-off that may wreck the rhino-horn market”). It is well-known that traditional Chinese medicine continues to attribute medicinal benefits to rhinoceros horns, by shaving or grinding the horn in boiling water, although the resulting concoction is said to have only a placebo effect. But when a kilogram can fetch up to $60,000, the monetary incentive for poachers to illegally hunt the animal is, sadly, immense.

The result is an alarming decline in the rhinoceros population. Since measures to reduce poaching have proven to be ineffective, maybe a partial solution can be found by creating a fake version of the product. At least, that is what Fritz Vollrath, a zoologist at University of Oxford, together with colleagues from Fudan University in Shanghai, belief. In the words of the article, based on a report by the researchers in "Scientific Reports, "they “have come up with a cheap and easy-to-make knock off that is strikingly similar to the real thing.”

                                                                                 The horns of a dilemma

If this proves successful, it is hoped, they will be able to cause the market for rhinoceros horns to be flooded with the fake product, thereby lowering their market price and reducing the incentive for poachers to hunt the rhinoceros.

The basis for creating the “forgery” by Vollrath and colleagues is horsehair (the “horns” of a rhinoceros are actually composed of hairs that are tightly bound by an agglomeration of dead cells). The researchers determined that the hairs of a rhinoceros are quite similar to those taken from the tail of a horse and adjustments can be made so they are even more similar. They then developed a suitable binding matrix for the hairs. The result was “…a material that, with some polishing, looked like rhino horn.”

The next step was, to ensure, to the extent possible, that the ensuing fake could withstand the close inspection given to the product on the black market. While DNA analysis would reveal the deception, such tests are highly unlikely to be carried out in the black-market environment. Once DNA testing is discounted, “[t]he forgeries passed other tests [Merpel notes they included scanning under an electronic microscope, heat absorption and several technical probes regarding the underlying mechanical properties] with flying colors.”

Will flooding the market with fake rhinoceros horns achieve the desired results, namely lower prices for horns leading to less poaching? After all, given that the possibility of fake horns is public information, what may happen is that the black marketeers will be able to distinguish between genuine and fake horns on the basis of their source. If that occurs, the question will be whether the existence of fake horns will lead to a significant dysfunctioning of the market (presumably good for the rhinoceros), or create a bifurcated market where genuine horns will fetch a premium price (perhaps less favorable for the rhinoceros)?

By Neil Wilkof
Photo by Jonathunder and is licensed the GNU Free Documentation License, version 1.2.

Is "fake" a four-letter word; ask the rhinoceros Is "fake" a four-letter word; ask the rhinoceros Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Saturday, December 21, 2019 Rating: 5

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