The economics of knockoffs is simple: The rich buy Prada bags, while the not so rich opt for fakes, which telegraph to the world they’re just as shallow as the rich, but on a budget. Prada doesn’t like knockoffs because they undercut both the bottom line as well as the purity of its brand.
Some scientists have been trying to put this principle to work in the rhino horn trade, by producing a convincing synthetic alternative and one day unleashing it on the market. A recent paper in Scientific Reports describes the manufacture of imitation rhino horn from, of all things, horsehair, using a process that is both simpler and produces a more convincing knockoff than earlier attempts, according to the researchers involved.
“Economists would argue if there is a commodity that’s very expensive, and if you can flood that market, you should bring the price down if the copies are good,” says University of Oxford biologist Fritz Vollrath, coauthor on the study. That would make poaching less lucrative, potentially helping to save the endangered species. “Hopefully it will rattle the market.”
There’s just one thing. Conservation groups and others who study the rhino horn trade argue that fake alternatives are unlikely to end up preserving the endangered species, and could even make the problem worse.