ON Saturday, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta oversaw the destruction of over $100 Million in illegal ivory as a protest against the international ivory trade, which is slowly killing the African Elephant. As a heavily publicized international event (it was covered extensively by many news agencies, including in this piece in Sunday’s New York Times), it cannot be a bad thing to use this opportunity to raise awareness of the existential threat that poaching poses to Africa’s elephants, and I’m all for consciousness raising, but this is a half-measure at best. Can’t we do better than just grandstanding? How about driving down the value of poached ivory?
I think I read somewhere that the prices of goods tend to go down as the supply goes up. Is anybody talking seriously about just swamping the illegal ivory market with ivory we can make in the laboratory? I’m not just spinning a sci-fi scenario here. This company has figured out how to synthesize rhinoceros horn in the laboratory by taking the genetic code that built rhinoceros horn in actual living rhinos and using it as a set of instructions for 3-D printing. Is there some reason why the same approach could not be used to synthesize elephant ivory in the laboratory and then flood the market with it? Stiff penalties for poachers and ivory traders is certainly worth pursuing as a strategy, as is placing bans on ivory imports and exports, but why not deter poachers and traders by just flat-out removing their economic incentives?
Evidently, conservation experts are far from convinced that laboratory-synthesized rhino horn will displace the poaching industry by causing the prices to crash, and with so few rhinos left I suppose there isn’t much time for chasing options that won’t help. Perhaps you can’t do everything at once when you’re facing a crisis as dire as the one that is facing the rhino. But honestly, it’s hard for me to see how a technological solution based on the laws of supply and demand don’t deserve some honest consideration as well as we think about saving Africa’s elephants.