The Naked Scientists | September 24, 2019
John asks: “I’d like to know if enough people in the world donated their finger and toenail clippings, could enough keratin be produced to satisfy the demand and thus stop the poaching of wild animals in Africa?”
Mariana Marasoiu put this to Jon Taylor, Deputy Director for Save the Rhino, and Simon Hughes, former WCS’s Elephant Coordinator, to get an answer to a nail biting question…
Mariana – Keratin is the substance that makes up most of our hair and nails, but it’s also the substance that makes up rhino horn. This is different though from elephant tusks, which are just very long teeth. Their horn is the main reason for why rhinos are under threat from poaching, and unfortunately they are killed illegally in Asia as well as Africa.
We asked a couple of experts to help us answer this question.
Jon Taylor from Save the Rhino International, a large wildlife conservation organisation that works to protect rhinos from threats such as poaching and habitat loss, explained that we first need to understand why people use rhino horn.
Jon – The demand for rhino horn is based on many factors, of which its chemical composition comes some way down the list. In Vietnam, the owning or giving of rhino horn is seen as a status symbol by some people. Being able to obtain such an expensive and elusive item is thought to be an indication of one’s wealth, power and influence. Research has shown that artificial substitutes or even horns from captive rhinos are not seen as having the same panache – certainly presenting one’s boss with a box of other people’s toenail clippings would not have the same impact.
Mariana – I also spoke with Simon Hedges, who works at Asian Arks on creating protected areas for wildlife in Asia. He mentioned that introducing substitutes to rhino horn might in fact have negative consequences.
Simon – Selling alternatives to wild rhino horn such as synthetic rhino horn (which has also been proposed) or keratin from human nails undermines vital efforts to reduce the demand for rhino horn in Asia. This is because actively marketing the alternatives would help legitimize the demand for and consumption of rhino horn products, including premium wild-sourced products.
Mariana – And so the demand for rhinos might actually increase!
Simon – What is needed to address the rhino poaching crisis is effective protection of wild rhino populations and properly designed demand reduction work based on the principles of behaviour change campaigns not just simple awareness-raising, together with deterrent penalties for those trafficking in and selling rhino horn.