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By John R. Platt
Earlier this month a team of scientists announced they've developed a high-tech way to help save rhinos from poachers: They propose fabricating fake horns out of horse hair (which is also composed of inert keratin, like human fingernails) and then flooding the illegal market with their products, thereby lowering the price of powdered rhino horns so much that no one will ever want to kill another rhino again.
This isn't the first time someone's come up with the well-intentioned (yet illogical) idea of creating fake rhino horn, and it probably won't be the last. But it should be the last, because there are several reasons why this concept, no matter how it's executed, is doomed to fail.
Let's explore them.
Perhaps most obviously, selling fake rhino horn doesn't do anything to address the end-user demand for these illegal products, which are driven by either fortunes or phony medicinal claims. These are ultimately the reasons rhinos and many other species are poached in the first place. As a result the best way to eliminate the financial incentive to sell these wildlife products is to get consumers to understand why they shouldn't be buying them in the first place. We've already seen this work; conservationists have finally started to make headway on curbing the shark-fin trade in China after extensive public-awareness campaigns called attention to the dangers the practice poses to people and marine ecosystems. Similar initiatives have started to help chip away at consumer demand for rhino horns there as well (thanks, Jackie Chan).
Progress still needs to be made on reducing the market for products from those species, as well as with other heavily trafficked animals such as pangolins, but that's another reason why purposefully selling fake rhino horns is wrong: The more you say that any aspect of the market for rhino horn is okay, which is what happens when you put these fake products (or limited real products) up for sale, the more it will expand the market. We've seen this before in the surge of elephant poaching after a one-off sale of ivory tusks in 2008, which was meant to flood the market and reduce the profitability of poaching but horrifically backfired. Elephants had begun to recover before that, and now they're in crisis. Rhinos are already in crisis — do we want to make things even worse?
On a broader and similar note, creating fake substitutes ignores a major aspect of what drives sales of many of these wildlife products. In traditional Asian medicine, "wild" products are considered more potent — and therefore more valuable — than anything that comes out of a lab or from a farm. That's why China still has trouble commercializing its vast network of tiger farms (yes, you read that right). Consumers want wild products, so even if you do succeed in commercializing "fake" or farmed products, it will tend to normalize demand for all these biological byproducts and further drive desire for "prestige" animals poached from their native habitats.
Meanwhile some well-healed people are actually investing in the possibility of extinction. Rich consumers in China and other countries have been known to buy rhino horns, tiger bones, live tortoises and other species in anticipation that a species will become rarer or even go extinct in the wild, therefore making their assets even more valuable. That threat will never evaporate through the addition of fake products on the marketplace — because, yes, extinction is profitable.
Confiscated rhino horns about to be burned.
Joanna Gilkeson / USFWS
Let's get to the ethical aspects of this trade in fakes. For one thing many consumers — those who actually use powdered rhino horn as "medicine" instead of holding on to it for eventual sale — are already being exploited. They're buying into false claims that rhino horn has curative qualities, including the recent and spurious assertion that it can treat cancer. By selling fake rhino horns, you become complicit in that lie and directly harm people who could, and should, seek more appropriate and effective medical care.
Another ethical quandary: How are you going to get these products into the black market without putting your undercover operatives in direct harm from the violent criminals who run wildlife trafficking networks? And do we really think anyone's going to be able to squeeze these products into the same illegal market that professional law-enforcement operations haven't been able to shut down? The chances of success there seem slim — and potentially dangerous.
Finally let's address the invisible gorilla in the room: Selling fake rhino horn doesn't do anything to resolve the inequality that inspires poaching. More often than not, people hunt illegally to support their families. The monies they get from poaching may mean the difference between comfortable living and going hungry. Sure, their pay comes from the people higher up the clandestine ladder — and sure, some poachers are more criminally minded themselves — but if we want to solve the problem of poaching, we always have to factor in the fate of people on the ground.
Having said all this, I have to point out that the current idea to sell fake rhino horns is just lab science. The researchers fully acknowledge that they don't have an actual initiative to get these products into the market. They say it's up to someone else to actually figure out how to make their idea a reality — so for now it's basically a thought exercise, not a concrete plan.
I have a better idea: Let's leave this fake horn concept in the lab where it belongs and commit to more practical initiatives to help rhinos — and people — in threatened habitats, where real assistance is desperately needed. With poaching and illegal trafficking still running rampant, rhinos don't have time left for anything less.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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In a pilot study at the University of Helsinki, dogs trained as medical diagnostic assistants were taught to recognize the previously unknown odor signature of the COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus. And they learned with astonishing success: After only a few weeks, the first dogs were able to accurately distinguish urine samples from COVID-19 patients from urine samples of healthy individuals.
Important Findings for Other Teams<p>The very rapid and promising findings from Finland are also important for other research teams, such as those in Great Britain and France, who are training sniffer dogs to detect COVID-19.</p><p>Fellow researchers from the <a href="http://assistenzhunde-zentrum.de/index.php/news/covid-19-hunde" target="_blank">German Assistance Dog Center (TARSQ)</a> have also benefited from the Finnish results.</p><p>"No one could tell us with certainty whether training with the aggressive virus is <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/dutch-house-pets-test-positive-for-coronavirus/a-53460111" target="_blank">dangerous or not for humans and dogs</a>. We wanted to gather more information first before we started training because the German virologists advised us against it — after all, so little is known about the virus so far," explains Luca Barrett from TARSQ.</p>
Where Does the Characteristic Smell Come From?<p>It is still unclear which substances in urine produce the apparently characteristic COVID-19 odor. Since SARS-CoV-2 not only attacks the lungs, but also causes damage to blood vessels, kidneys and other organs, it is assumed that the patients' urine odor also changes. This is something which the dogs, with their highly sensitive olfactory organs, notice immediately.</p><p>Certain diseases appear to have a specific olfactory signature that trained dogs can sniff out with amazing accuracy, Barrett says.</p><p>"According to one study, dogs can detect breast cancer with a 93% probability, for example. And lung cancer with a 97% probability," she says.</p><p>But dogs can also identify skin cancer, colon cancer, ovarian cancer or prostate cancer very reliably, according to Barrett. "The hit rate, which was not so good in the early days of training, has risen enormously in recent years," she says.</p>
Hit Rate Decisive<p>Besides cancer, the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/german-sniffer-dog-makes-1-million-drug-bust/a-53433307" target="_blank">dogs</a> can also detect Parkinson's disease. Parkinson's sufferers smell different even years before they have the disease. "That's how we came up with the idea of training dogs as an early warning system for Parkinson's," Barrett says.</p><p>Dogs are also trained to detect malaria, but the hit rate is not yet satisfactory, she says. So far, the dogs recognize seven out of 10 infected persons, which is not enough.</p><p>A high hit rate is, of course, also absolutely necessary when training for the aggressive SARS-CoV-2 pathogen, according to Barret. "We hope that the hit rate for the coronavirus is significantly higher in the fully trained dogs; after all, it would be very dangerous if COVID-19 were not detected," she says</p>
Trained Tracking Dogs<p>Dogs' ability to smell is about a million times better than that of humans. Humans have about 5 million olfactory cells, compared with 125 million for dachshunds and 220 million for sheepdogs.</p><p>Dogs also inhale up to 300 times per minute in short breaths, meaning that their olfactory cells are constantly supplied with new odor particles. In addition, dogs' noses differentiate between right and left. This spatial sense of smell allows the animals to follow a trail more easily.</p><p>During the training sessions, the dogs — mostly Labrador retrievers or retrievers in general, but also cocker spaniels or sheepdog breeds — are each trained for one scent. That can be the smell of a drug or an explosive, or, as here, the olfactory signature of a specific disease.This means that one dog cannot recognize several types of cancer.</p><p>The animals are trained with containers holding samples of breath or sweat, for example. As soon as they have identified the smell they are looking for, the dogs hear a click and get a treat. They are reliably trained for the one smell on this reward principle.</p>
Great Potential, Great Skepticism<p>Drug and explosive detection dogs have been used for some time. But trained medical scent detection dogs are also now working in hospitals. For example, they sniff the bodies of patients with suspected skin cancer to try and detect the disease — only with the patients' consent, of course. So these skilled snufflers are helping doctors in diagnosing diseases and detecting them early on.</p><p>However, so far there are only very few medical detection dogs. The dog owners almost always work voluntarily and the trained sniffer dogs live in normal households. There is great skepticism, especially among traditional doctors and health insurance companies, even though the first indications given by the dog have to be followed by further medical tests anyway and a lot of time and costs could be saved by early cancer detection.</p>
Possible Coronavirus Applications<p>If the findings from Finland are confirmed, the sniffer dogs with their extremely sensitive sense of smell could prove to be a great help in the fight against the new coronavirus.</p><p>Luca Barrett from TARSQ can easily picture coronavirus sniffer dogs being used in situations where there is a high risk of infection. For example, people attending football matches and other major events could be checked before they are admitted.</p><p>The dogs could also be employed at airports to scan people entering a country. "When the dogs go down the queue, they can detect if someone is healthy and can enter the country. But if a person smells of COVID-19, the handler could send that person to a coronavirus testing center instead," Barrett says. That is because a second test is still needed to confirm the dog's initial sniff detection.</p><p><span></span>Barrett says dogs could also be used to search for the virus on surfaces. For example, before passengers board an aircraft, a four-legged friend could first check whether the machine is free from SARS-CoV-2. Similar measures are planned for doctors' surgeries, aged care homes or nursing homes that have had to be evacuated because of COVID-19 cases. Before these are used again, a sniffer dog could check whether the environment is "clean."</p>
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