Markets in everything 3-D printing arbitrage to curb rhino poaching

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.

And this:

The company plans to release a beer brewed with the synthetic horn later this year in the Chinese market.


The full story is here, via Max Roser.


Can we get these guys working on clean energy next? (Seriously, I'm impressed).

"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."

Rhino horn is now a complement good? Has the modern cow increased demand for bison? I am starting to think that a dearth of solutions for poaching is due to the selection effect of its purported solvers.

I bet demand for bison hasn't decreased.

The $35 price per pound for bison steaks and $10 for ground bison clearly indicates very little demand for bison...

I'd support Millian's bet. And the uncertainty from the IRF seems understandable...who knows if there will really be much of a market reaction to this? I believe that in other wildlife product markets (e.g., tiger bone) scarcity has already caused some substitution that hasn't reduced demand (the group TRAFFIC monitors more of this). Instead you have tiger farms in China and the continued existence of networks that try and source wild tigers. Whether this is because the consumer (or a middleman) knows and cares about the difference between wild or farm-raised tiger bone isn't clear to me - poaching networks could simply be attached to another economic activity (and influenced by other motives) - but it's sufficient to keep the practice active in the areas where there are enough tigers that it might be worthwhile, and part of these animals are found in China, Vietnam, and other areas far from their origin.

It's great that they're trying to lower the market price - after 2009 things got worse very quickly and rhino horn became pricier than gold - but it may be more likely that Honeyoak's sarcastic mention of complementarity is true.

The tiger farms are not a good comparison because it costs more to raise the tiger on the farm than to catch it in the wild.

Bison consumption has not disappeared, but bison poaching is not major problem. Now the mystique of real rhino horn might be greater than that of real bison steak, but creating synthetic rhino horn may is unlikely to increase it in the way that the tiger farms are said to increase the demand for tiger bone by exposing people to tigers.

Thanks for the tiger farm link. I wasn't suggesting that the farms were a cost-effective alternative, just used it as an example of how the potential substitution of other products for tiger bones in the late '90s hasn't shifted demand away from tigers.

I may not completely understand your last sentence, but I think the concern of synthetic horn is as 'equilibrium' points out below -- it may just attract a different consumer without affecting the high-end consumers who are driving poaching now. Of course, this is tough to tell...the spike in price is relatively recent (after years of being much lower), so maybe a bloc of current consumers accept substitution, or shift to a different product. I haven't followed much of the reporting on this for several years.

From what I can tell, the issue is not on the demand side. The issue is that countries aren't able to manage their rhino herds and sell to China. It's not like the Chinese demand for beef is causing all the cows to go extinct.

Most of the rhinos remaining are on the land of Western corporations run by white people who are losing millions every year on security measures to stop the pillage and plunderers engaged in grand theft for profit, selling their stolen goods to the Asian markets.

R&D into harvesting rhino horn has demonstrated that the pillage and plunderers have no regard for farmers growing rhino horn sustainably and simply kill rhinos before the the farmers harvest the horn, even if the horn is not as large as it would be before harvest. Clearly, the scarcity and monopoly by the pillage and plunderers lead to rapid depletion just to drive up prices.

Can the fake rhino horns only be produced via 3D printing? Maybe I don't quite understand the difference between producing something the 3D way and producing something the old-fashioned way. The implication is that fake horns can't be produced the old-fashioned way.

By breeding fake rhinos?

If it took 5-10 years to grow steers to market weight and required lots of land, do you think there would be no criminals stealing your cattle before they reached market weight to kill and slaughter for sale at less than you put into them?

Selling for a loss is highly profitable to the criminal pillage and plunderers, who do not care if you go bankrupt because they expect the rich will bail you or or buy you out and produce more cattle for them to steal.

Attempts to protect the rhino by harvesting the horn sustainably made the rhino less profitable for tourism while doing nothing to deter the criminals who would kill for a stub horn because its more profitable than not.

This is true, and one reason why livestock theft was historically punished so harshly (usually by death).

The International Rhino Foundation doesn't think it's the smartest idea.

"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. And, importantly, questions arise as to how law enforcement authorities will be able to detect the difference between synthetic and real horn, especially if they are sold as powder or in manufactured products."

The International Rhino Foundation doesn't like something that could put it out of business? What a shock!

Why would put them out of business??

Oh, you mean the total extinction of rhinos....

Replacements for ivory are both plentiful and superior in virtually every regard, so why the pillage and plunder of the assets of white Westerners who pay Africans a lot to protect elephants from being killed for their tusks?

Why can't the Chinese just chew their fingernails instead?

Or believe in harmless quackery like drinking water the way Westerners do.

Drinking water has immense health benefits.

Won't work. Will only make the "genuine", or claimed genuine rhino horns more expensive.

Yeah but how will consumers be able to tell "genuine" rhino horn from the ones produced by 3d printers? It's not like China is known for it's copyright protection, and truth in advertising laws. My guess is that all sellers will claim that their rhino horn supplement is the real thing, prices will plunge, and it will make poaching much less attractive.

Can they print dinosaurs?

Why stop poaching? All you have to do is save some genetic material from the species and store it safely for later use.

Then the species can go extinct without information loss, and if we ever decide we want to waste resources and money on the species again, we can breed it again.

If you could inject endangered species with human anti-impotency drugs that were retained in the parts valued by these idiots, the trade would end quickly.

Or a genetic additive that would poison the end consumer.

> Or a genetic additive that would poison the end consumer.

Already being done:

"Wait a moment, I'm still alive! This stuff is fake! I demand a refund!"

Why would you want to make it effective? Why not pro-impotency drugs, instead?

I have proposed a similar plan, but by forcing a situation where consumers cannot know whether they have the synthetic product or not. Sophisticated labs would retain the ability to identify any real rhino horn, so that governments could prosecute people distributing it. There should be no penalty for advertising the fake stuff as being real

What year was Blade Runner supposed to be?

It is indeed a market failure that nobody offers an expensive online access to a drone with the capability of killing poachers! Call it the war on terror dividends!

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