Penny Thoughts

Category: News

Could Young Blood Stop you from Ageing?

Research in the US has shown that injecting old mice with young blood leads to improved muscle strength, brain function and stamina; potentially reversing the effects of ageing.

3 studies were published last week in Science, all reporting on the rejuvenating effects of young blood in older mice. The young blood led to the appeared reversal of age-related declines in memory, learning, stamina and the function of many organs including the heart and brain.

Ageing is the underlying cause of a huge number of health problems. As our bodily systems slowly go into decline with age, health problems like dementia, cancer, heart disease and diabetes become more and more common. By learning more about the ageing process and its links with various health problems, we could predict, or even prevent many cases. Therefore, this research carried out in the US is of great importance.

In each study the researchers used a process called heterochronic parabiosis, which essentially involves joining two mice together; think conjoined twins. This process is carried out by making an incision on one side of each mouse and then allowing the wounds to heal in such a way that the two mice become joined. This process results in the joining of the two mice’s blood supply.

The researchers joined young mice (3 months) with older mice (18 months) and studied the effects of the new shared blood supply.  They found that brain function increased in the older mouse, as not only did the mice grow more neural connections (how brain cells communicate), these connections were also stronger. This means better communication between the cells in the brain of the older mouse.

Villeda, lead author of one of the papers told the Guardian “There’s something about young blood that can literally reverse the impairments you see in the older brain.”

From these initial findings Villeda went on to directly inject older mice with young blood plasma (blood without red blood cells), and what he found was remarkable. He tested the young and old rats’ memory and ability to learn using a water maze and testing their ability to remember a threatening environment.

The old rats injected with young blood plasma performed just as well as the six-month old rats in the maze task. Even more remarkably, the older rats performed as well as the three-month olds in remembering a threatening environment.

These results suggest that there is something in the blood of young rats that is essentially reversing or halting the ageing process in older rats.. so what is it?

The answer to that very important questions is Creb; a protein that regulates the brain. The young blood plasma actually increases the activity of Creb which in turn switches on the genes that create neural connections.

However, young plasma isn’t just improving learning and memory in mice. Further studies have shown that injected young blood also increases blood flow in the brain by encouraging blood vessel growth. There was also an increase in the growth of neural stem cells which later become new brain cells. It has also been found that young blood makes older mice stronger and boosts endurance due to increased muscle function. The young blood also led to the older mice gaining a greater sense of smell.

So this is all very exciting, but what happens if you do the opposite, and inject young mice with old blood? Well, interestingly the younger mice show the opposite results; they show decreased brain and muscle function and perform less well in memory and learning tasks. So the process works both ways.

So what does this all mean for us? According to Villeda, “The evidence is strong enough now, in multiple tissues, that it’s warranted to try and apply this in humans”. This potential research is however, not expected to take place until three to five years from now.

This is all very promising, and if the same is found in humans there could be a dramatic reduction in the onset of age-related health issues, which would be particularly important as the aged population in the UK continues to grow. Preventing the onset of these diseases would save a huge amount of money and potentially work to prevent the potential impeding public health crisis.

However, we cannot know for sure the impacts of this study on humans until clinical trials are carried out. So don’t go stitching yourself to your children just yet.. there is plenty more we don’t know.

 

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Losing the Polar Bear Battle

Polar bears can be legally hunted in Canada for their fur, fangs and other body parts. This is the only country where this hunting is legal but the US put forward the proposal at this year’s CITES conference to ban this hunting altogether.

Polar bears currently fall into CITES appendix 1 which means legal hunting of these animals is allowed with strict monitoring and regulation. The proposal aimed to bump the polar bears up to appendix 2 which would make hunting of polar bears completely illegal.

This is not the first time that this proposal has been considered, but no success has been seen. There were hopes that the ban would get passed at the CITES conference, but this was not to be. 2/3 of the parties were needed to vote in favour of this proposal for it to be passed. Unfortunately, this was not even nearly reached. 38 voted in favour, but 42 voted against (48 abstained from the vote).

This result served for much disappointment for many nations including the US, Russia and the UK. However, with many important nations like China and Vietnam importing these products from Canada the number of opponents added up.

Canada was also strongly opposed to the proposal as the polar bear market provides the native Inuit people with a stable income. With roughly 600 polar bears being hunted and sold each year at a price of $5000 at auction, it is clear that they are a crucial income source for many Inuit people.

Depressing Future For Polar Bears

Polar bears have become a bit of a poster child for species affected by climate change. This is in part due to their popularity in modern culture and the visibly huge effects climate change is having on their habitat. So it does seem rather counter intuitive that there is legal hunting of this already vulnerable species.

The arctic habitat that these polar bears inhabit has decreased by nearly 20% since 1980 and this decrease is set to accelerate in the future. It is predicted that if we do not get a hold of our CO2 emissions by 2060, the ice caps will be committed to melting. That means no habitat for the polar bears at all.

Regulated Hunting

Terry Audla, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, argued that their hunting methods are sustainable and that they “hunt for subsistence”. He explains that the polar bears are needed to make money and put food on the table. Cows, chickens and pigs etc are not available to them; they are working with what they have.

This point is fair, however, there is no doubt that the hunting is having detrimental effects on the polar bear populations. Although this hunting has not been a huge problem in the past, it is likely that the combined effect of climate change and hunting in the future will only drive the polar bear populations down further.

My concern is that as the populations inevitably fall and therefore prices of polar bear products increase in price, we will have a situation very similar to that currently seen in the rhino horn trade. I have already written a post relating to these issues so I won’t delve into the details but you can find it here.

I feel that this may be another case of the powers of the world continuing to act in a reactive manner rather than a proactive manner. Yes, right now, the effects of polar bear hunting aren’t having a hugely dramatic effect, but we will not be able to say the same in the near future. Will it then be too late?

If you have any opinions on this or the rhino post, please share.. I’d love to hear what other people’s thoughts are..

Poisonous Rhino Horns: The Answer to a Difficult Question?

This year over 200 rhinos have been illegally slaughtered to feed the incessant demand for rhino horn coming from the East. The huge majority of this demand is coming from China where the horn is used for traditional medicine and the ivory for numerous products including artworks and weapon handles.

One kilogram of rhino horn can fetch up to $68 000 on the black market making it worth more than its weight in gold. This clearly lucrative business attracts a lot of people and devalues the potentials costs associated with being part of an illegal industry.

There have been endless attempts to try to control this illegal poaching but with very little success. The number of rhinos being poached is rising each year and the future is looking ever darker for rhinos around the world. A ban has existed since the 1970s but is providing little protection to these heavily targeted creatures. Due to this, alternative approaches have been considered.

I have already written a post about the attempt to legalise the ivory trade to enable more control of the industry. This idea was based on the fact that rhino horn is made out our keratin, like our finger nails and therefore can regrow. So essentially rhino horn harvesting could take place. If you want to read more about this really interesting idea follow this link.

This year, another alternative method of control is being carried out in a game reserve in South Africa; Sabi Sands. It is targeting the medicinal use of the rhino horn which is ingested. The rhino horns are being injected with a mixture of parasiticides and an inedible pink die. If ingested, this cocktail of chemicals will make the consumer very ill, leading to “nausea, stomach ache, [and] diarrhoea.”

Andrew Parker, chief executive of the Sabi Sand Wildtuin Association has stated that the poison will not kill people just make them very ill. The pink dye will also be very obvious and therefore should act as an obvious visual deterrent. This dye will also make it very obvious to poachers that the rhino horn is poisoned and should prevent continued hunting of rhinos in those regions. It will also serve as a very good indicator for border control forces who will rapidly be able identify rhino horn in its whole or powder form.

So what is actually in this poisonous cocktail of chemicals. The parasiticides used are generally used to control mites on livestock like horses, sheep and cattle. This is mixed with the dye and injected into a hole that is bored into the rhino horn when the rhino is sedated. This “toxification” has already been carried out on over 100 rhinos in South Africa, and work is continuing to toxify even more.

This process does seem like a good idea, however, it does bring up some moral concerns. This process is acting with the intention of causing harm to consumers. Yes, these consumers are acting illegally, but does that justify this kind of action? In my opinion it does. These people aren’t going to die, but it will serve as a lesson to not consume this illegal product. The lesson may be harsh, but the current “weaker” attempts are not working. Maybe these consumers deserve this kind of action and considering the product will be bright pink they would have to be pretty stupid to go on and eat it.

Another concern is that this may not bring an end to poaching or even reduce the levels, it may simply displace the poaching to other places. Poachers may be put off from poaching in certain regions due to this action, however, these people are likely to just target other areas to obtain their income. This method could be effective if carried out throughout a

ll/the large majority of the rhino’s distribution; unfortunately, this is really not a possibility. Many rhinos do reside within reserves and parks, but a large proportion of these parks do not have the people, the materials or the funds to carry out this kind of work. Also, many rhinos do not live in parks and therefore it would be extremely complicated to toxify all rhinos.

Maybe with significant funding and support, a campaign could be carried out; this is unfortunately pretty unlikely too. A huge amount of lobbying and campaigning would be required, with research and trials to determine whether this method would be a possibility. This would all take quite some time, and maybe too much time for the rhinos.

There is also concern that the rhino poachers simply wouldn’t care. These people are criminals, if they can still fetch a decent amount of money it is very likely that they will continue to poach these rhinos until the horn completely devalues. Devaluing may occur if this toxification can be rolled out across the world driving down global demand, but as has been mentioned, this is a lot easier said than done.

The Sabi Sands reserve want to tell poachers that they have no place being in their park as their rhinos are pointless kills. I do worry about this message; a few years ago some parks were shaving the horn off rhinos so that the poachers had no access to the horn and therefore, no profit. However, the poachers retaliated and many rhinos were slaughtered in response.

Overall, I think this is a good idea. Measures in place aren’t working and so new, alternative measures are having to be considered. This approach does come with some ifs and buts, but in my opinion, every little helps. However, it may reach a point  where our greed seals the fate for rhinos, where investing effort into saving them would be rendered pointless. Some people already think this is the case. I do still think there is some time, but that window of opportunity is ever shrinking and action needs to be taken now before it’s too late.

Greenpeace Activists Reach New Heights as they Climb the Shard

A group of Greenpeace activists are climbing the tallest building in Western Europe today in a protest against oil and gas drilling in the Arctic.

At 4.20am this morning, police were called to the Shard as people reported climbers scaling the side of the building. The team, made up of 6 women, although from varying corners of globe, are all united in the fight against gas and oil drilling in the Arctic.

The protesters main target is Shell, who’s headquarters surround the Shard. Shell have recently announced that they are going ahead with their plans to expand gas and oil drilling in the Arctic. This fragile continent is already dramatically impacted by climate change and therefore there is enormous concern about the direct and indirect impacts that this drilling will have.

Updates on the progress of the climb are being covered by Greenpeace on twitter. Pictures and accounts of the women scaling the sides of the 310m high Shard are regularly being posted alongside pleas for support and plans to contact Shell. These women are clearly skilled climbers if they can keep their twitter up to date while clinging to the side of the glass fortress that is the Shard.

Already over 33 000 people have signed up to show their support for the climbers and their disgust at Shell and numerous other gas and oil companies’ plans. A live broadcast by Greenpeace is also covering the event and getting in contact with scientists, conservationists and Shell.

Shell have acknowledged the event and accept Greenpeace’s opinion, however are showing no sign of changing their plans. A spokesman said that “If responsibly developed, Arctic energy resources can help offset supply constraints and maintain energy security for consumers throughout the world”. The spokesman also claims that Shell do take action to reduce environmental impacts, however no specific examples were given.

A spokesman from the Metropolitan police announced that they are doing all they can to ensure the safety of the protesters, the public and those working in the building. The climbers are currently at 150m; just under half way. All climbers are wearing harnesses and are attached to the building, with a maximum of 6m fall if an accident were to occur.

Once they complete their climb the protesters will be hanging a piece of unknown artwork to emphasise their message.

Everyone please get involved, join the fight, use the hashtag (#iceclimb) and follow the journey of these brave women!

New Hope For Corals: Self-Recovery

study publsihed this week in Science has shown that coral reefs can in fact recover themselves after disaster, when under the right conditions.

Scott reef is an isolated reef found 250km from the coast of Australia in the Indian Ocean.  It suffered a mass bleaching event in 1998 in which over 80% of the coral cover was lost. Dr James Gilmour, the lead author of the study stated that, “The initial projections for Scott Reef were not optimistic”.

Before this paper, it was believed that seriously damaged corals could only recover in the presence of nearby coral reefs. Planula are the gametes of corals; they are what forms when the male and female gametes of the corals fuse together, much like our eggs and sperm. These planula are free-swimming and can reach neighbouring reefs and settle. Before the findings of this study were published, this process was thought to be the mechanism by which damaged reefs could recover.

Scott reef was monitored for 15 years by the researchers and the findings were very much unexpected. The researchers did not have much faith in the reef recovering to its pre-bleaching state in the near future. However, over the years of monitoring they observed the reef recovering at a surprisingly fast rate considering its isolation and level of damage.

Instead of the reef relying on propagules from other healthy reefs, the researchers found that the very few surviving corals were producing planula at high enough rates that self-replenishment was taking place.

It was soon realised that these few survivors were growing at such high rates because of the conditions existing in this isolated reef. Because Scott reef is so isolated from other reefs and so far offshore, the levels of human influence are reduced. The water quality at Scott reef is much better than other near shore reefs which receive higher levels of pollutants from the coast.

Water quality is linked with the health of reefs and meant that Scott reef had an increased ability to cope with and recover from the bleaching. The reef also received reduced levels of fishing and sedimentation compared to other reefs helping with its surprisingly speedy recovery.

The isolation that was initially considered a hindrance for the reef was actually enabling its survival.

This work proves that coral reefs can spring back from extreme damage. However, this recover is dependent on conditions. These findings are great for those reefs similar to Scott reef; isolated and with reduced human pressure. However, the majority of reefs do not have these qualities and are still at threat from the ever increasing human pressures. Non-isolated reefs are relatively safeguarded by neighbouring reefs sending propagules, but there is only so much these reefs can take.

Even conservative estimations predict that all coral ecosystems could be lost by the end of this century. So although this paper is good news in that it shows another way in which corals can recover after severe damage, the pressures facing coral reefs are ever worsening and need to be addressed.

Pesticides Wiping The Memories of Our Bees

This year, evidence has mounted supporting the idea that neonicotinoid pesticides are contributing to the dramatic falls in bee populations over the last few decades. I have already written two posts regarding this matter. If you are interested feel free to give them a quick read as I won’t be going over too much of the stuff I included. The first can be f0und here and delves into what effects neonicotinoids are having on bees and other pollinating insects. The second summarises the results of the EU vote against the ban of these pesticides and can be found here.

The proposed ban of neonicotinoids was rejected when put forward to the European Commission on the 15th March this year. One of the main arguments presented by opposers of the ban, including the UK environmental secretary, Owen Paterson, was that more data and research was required supporting the idea that neonicotinoids are negatively impacting bees, before a ban could be properly considered.

There has been a lot of response to this, including  a recent evaluation by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). This report has suggested that neonicotinoids do not pose a serious threat to bees in a natural, real life setting. One of their main arguments is that the majority of the research that has been carried out has been done so in a lab based environment. They believe that the levels of neonicotinoids that most bees are exposed to in the wild are not comparable to those used in the lab based research and that the results are therefore over estimations.

This is a major punch in the face for supporters of the ban and researchers trying to investigate into this topic. With DEFRA being such a big name, it is likely that many people will be swayed due to this report. However, I have not.

This is a little irritating to me. Yes, a lot of the research was carried out in lab based environments, but I do not feel that this fact alone is enough to render these findings invalid. The huge majority of scientific work takes place in the most part in labs. Does this mean that all lab based work should be dismissed? NO.

The neonicotinoids are affecting bees and other pollinating insects in detrimental ways, whether that be in the lab or the field. It is likely that the lab setting may intensify these effects, but bees are being affected in the real world. Numbers are falling and something is causing that.

I found this very recent study published yesterday in Nature. This study is something different, it has lab AND field based experimentation. The researchers have shown that neonicotinoids actually impair the memory of bees which is impacting their ability to successfully forage and therefore pollinate the world’s plants. The study was led by Mary Palmer and her team and they state that it is known that neonicotinoids do impact bees, but that there is little empirical evidence to explain how and this needs to improve.

They successfully demonstrate how 2 neonicotinoids (imidacloprid and clothianidin) directly affect neuronal transmission within the nicotinic receptors in the brains of honey bees. They looked at the effects of neonicotinoids in bee Kenyon cells (KCs). KCs are neurons found in the brains of arthropods, including incsects. These KCs play an important role in learning and memory, particularly when it comes to smells.

The research team looked at the effects of sublethal levels of neonicotinoids on honeybees in the field and in the lab. They found in the lab group that the exposure led to a significant impairment of the bees’ abilities to learn and remember smells. This is particularly important as bees rely in part on the specific scents of certain flowers in their foraging and pollination behaviours. In the field, the neonicotinoids impair bees’ abilities to forage efficiently and navigate to and from the nest. Effects are being seen in the field.

These findings are worrying as they show that the levels of neonicotinoids that many bees are exposed to are impacting learning and foraging abilities. If bees cannot forage efficiently, then they cannot pollinate efficiently. This does not bode well for our already suffering global food security.

Another concerning finding is that these impacts are being exacerbated by other pesticides. This is very important as there is a lot of overlap in pesticide use and also regular switching of pesticides. This means that the majority of bees will be affected as they find themselves in ever increasingly common regions of extensive pesticide usage.

This study is great in showing an actual physiological change that results in the cells of bees in response to exposure to neonicotinoids. The use of research in a lab and field environment also helps with securing the accuracy and representativeness of their findings and reducing the opportunity to dismiss this important work. However, Mary Palmer and her team do state in the paper that improvements could be made. They explain that the cultured KCs do show marginally different levels of response to actual KCs and that future work could look into this disparity.

Regardless of the potential flaws, this study empirically shows neonicotinoids directly impacting bee learning and memory. I’m sure that this study will be just one of many similar studies appearing in the near future. The research is likely to be faced by a lot of opposition, with papers like the above being in the firing line of organisations who intend to undermine as much as possible.

This area is a hot topic and the demand for this type of research is ever increasing. Let’s hope that the methodology is a stringent as possible giving opposition very little excuse to dig their claws in and undermine very important work.

Beaches Turn Red as Thousands of Langoustines Wash Up on Chilean Beach

Beaches in Chile have turned red with the presence of thousands of washed up prawns and langoustines and no one knows why.

Unfortunately the best photo I can get hold of is this screen grab of some footage, but more photos should be popping up online soon I’m sure.

Numerous beaches of the Concepcion Province are coated in a carpet of langoustines. Investigations are being carried out to attempt to find out the reason for this occurrence.  Tests of sea temperature, electrical conductivity and oxygen levels will be carried out to help to determine what has caused the deaths of thousands of langoustines. The main culprits at the moment are viruses of the langoustines, offshore oil exploration and poisoned food, but nothing has been confirmed as of yet.

This is not the first time living creatures have washed up on Pacific Chilean beaches, but this event is on a much greater scale and has perplexed locals and authorities in the area.

For a little more information watch this video from the Guardian.

There is concern that these events are becoming more common. Is this a chance event or is something happening in our oceans driving this kind of strange occurrence?

Hopefully there will be some more answers over the next few days..

Rejection of the Pesticide Ban: What Now for Bees?

On Wednesday I posted about the proposed ban of three neonicotinoid pesticides across Europe due to the hugely detrimental effect they are having on bees. Feel free to read the article as it includes a lot more information about the ban itself and why it had been proposed in the first place.

The ban was proposed by the European Commission but was today rejected due to a majority decision failing to be reached. 13 EU governments voted for the ban and 9 voted against. I feel some kind of hope that more governments did vote in favour of the ban, it is just unfortunate that this number was not quite high enough for the ban to be approved. 5 countries abstained from the vote, and that included the UK and Germany.

There has been much media coverage surrounding this issue recently. The UK Environmental Secretary, Owen Paterson has received a lot of negative attention due to his responses relating to the ban. He has even received criticism from his position predecessor John Gummer who said: “If ever there were an issue where the precautionary principle ought to guide our actions, it is in the use of neonicotinoids. Bees are too important to our crops to continue to take this risk.” In my opinion I feel Owen Paterson acted rather cowardly by abstaining from the vote, claiming that he did so due to a need for more research into the area. You only have to type “bees and neonicotinoids” into Google to realise there is a wealth of research surrounding the topic.

Researcher Prof Dave Goulson led research in this field and has claimed that neonicotinoid over-reliance is posing an “unacceptable risk to bees”. I feel this is another case of politicians being ignorant to the findings of researchers. With only one MP in the country having a scientific background is this really surprising?

With nearly 3/4 of Britons voting for the ban on a poll by Avaaz, it is not only those in the field of science likely to be disappointed, but also a huge proportion of the British and European public. Iain Keith from Avaaz has voiced his opinion on the matter stating that “today’s vote flies in the face of science and public opinion and maintains the disastrous chemical armageddon on bees, which are critical for the future of our food.”

It is time for the large chemical companies like Bayer and Syngenta to accept that the world cannot continue their over reliance on their products forever. But as this case has shown, this will not be happening for a long time. These corporations are too concerned with the short term and give little to no interest to future gain from present loss. This isn’t exactly surprising, they are a business and they have money in mind. But will they be happy to be remembered in this way? I don’t really think they care, and that is a great shame.

This has all rather depressed me a bit. Sadly this is only one story in an enormous book of similarly grim cases that we can be certain is unfinished. But I do feel there is a light in the dark, a tiny glimmer of hope. That is the number of governments that did vote in favour of the ban and the huge public support that backed this ban. No, this was not enough to make a difference, but awareness of the state of our world is increasing and hopefully will continue to rise.

Killing Our Bees: The Pesticide Story

Bee numbers have fallen by 50% in the last 25 years in the UK and US. This is a huge problem as bees pollinate a third of the food we eat, and are therefore paramount to our food security.

There has been extensive research carried out to determine what is causing this rapid decline in these precious insects. Main culprits include the varroa mite, loss of habitat and increased pesticide use.

A recent study has found that certain pesticides called neonicotinoids are having hugely detrimental effects on our bees. It has been shown that bee colonies in regions with neonicotinoid pesticide use have an 85% reduction in the number of queens the nest can produce. This means that very few new colonies are being formed the next season. The researchers also found that the colonies were smaller in the presence of the pesticides and therefore at higher risk of death.

Other researchers have found that the neonicotinoids lead to changes in the brain functioning of bees. The neonicotinoid pesticides are altering the bees’ abilities to navigate back to the colony. This means that a huge number are not returning to the nest and if they do not find their way, they die.

All of these factors are having a hugely detrimental effect on the already diminishing bee populations.

With these discoveries, a proposal has been put forward calling for the ban of the use of three types of neonicotinoid pesticides across Europe. This ban would see the halting of use of these three pesticides on crops including oil seed rape and sunflowers. The decision will be made on Friday, when the members of the European Commission vote on the matter.

This proposal has seen enormous public support. The campaign group Avaaz set up a petition so the public could show their feelings on the matter. They have managed to obtain over 2.5 million signatures and a massive 70% of Britons have voted in favour of the ban.

However, regardless of this public support, the UK environmental secretary, Owen Paterson is not supporting the ban. He is also not alone. Germany and Spain are also opposing the ban and this outweighs the support from France, Poland and The Netherlands.

Knowing the state of bee populations in Europe and their predicted future decline, it seems very short sighted to ignore these warning signs associated with the neonicotinoid pesticides. This is again a case of our policy makers ignoring scientists’ push for urgent action to enable brighter futures. As the bee populations continue to crash the world powers are putting global food security at great risk by maintaining their ignorance towards these kinds of matters.

Instead of taking proactive action to maintain well-being for future generations, policy makers are acting with short term interests in mind. Yes, with a ban on these three pesticides there will likely be a fall in certain areas of crop productivity. But we have the technology and knowledge to manage this in a safer and more sustainable way so that this fall will not continue.

The over-reliance on these damaging chemicals is not a new problem, and it was hoped that lessons would have been learned from the DDT disaster and release of Silent Spring over 50 years ago.

It does seem that some nations are beginning to see the problems we are currently facing and will continue to face in the future. Some powers seem to be thinking in a more proactive manner, which is great. However, until the majority of nations are on board with this kind of approach very little can and will be done.

To Legalise or Not to Legalise? Rhino Horn Trade

SA rhino poaching at record high

This week the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) are meeting in Bangkok to discuss the current and future threats to wildlife. The ivory trade is set to be a hot topic at the conference. This has been proven already with the announcement of a ban on the trade of elephant tusk in Thailand last week. A highly controversial proposal is also being put forward this year, calling for the legalisation of the African rhino horn trade.

A ban on the trade of rhino horn has existed since 1977, but it is failing to protect the rhinos which are being illegally slaughtered for their precious horn. The demand for rhino horn is rapidly increasing as buyer countries like China and Vietnam become richer.  With the ban in place, the only way this huge demand can be supplied is by illegal poaching.

With rhino numbers ever dwindling and demand ever increasing, horn is becoming more and more expensive. One kilogram of rhino horn can fetch $68 000 in the illegal markets; this makes it more valuable than gold. This combined with the inadequate enforcement of penalties by often corrupt governments means the benefits of poaching far outweigh the potential risks. Wealthier poachers mean the use of more technologically advanced and efficient methods of poaching. The conservation efforts are struggling to keep up and therefore, rhino populations are falling dramatically.

A Legal Market

Dr Biggs and his colleagues at the University of Queensland believe that legal trade is the only way to supply the “insatiable international demand” for rhino horn, whilst simultaneously protecting the rhinos. They suggest that a highly regulated and monitored legal trade could fulfil these needs as the profits made from this legal market can go directly to the conservation of the rhinos.

The reason this legal trade could be possible is due to the fact that rhino horn is made of keratin and therefore constantly grows, much like our own fingernails. So this means that rhino horn can essentially be harvested. Most illegal poachers kill rhinos for their horns, but Dr Biggs and his colleagues state that “sedating a rhino to shave its horn can be done for as little as $20.”

This kind of approach has seen success in the crocodile skin market, but can it be applied to rhinos? The researchers believe it can, but there is concern that legalising will only increase the demand further so that the legal market alone is not enough.

However, Dr Biggs and his colleagues believe that if the trade is controlled solely by one central selling organisation (CSO), successful legal trade could be possible. They believe that selling in this way will enable much easier identification of changes in demand and the presence of illegal traders and suppliers.

Legal trading should drive down the high prices and tempt buyers away from the more risky illegal suppliers. This should in turn lead to a huge reduction in the levels of illegal poaching and enable more efficient protection of these unique animals.

Dr Biggs has stated that he believes the rhino horn trade “is an urgent issue, we must start the process of getting a legal trade evaluated and put in place soon.” It has been predicted that it could take up to six years to get this system into place. The big question here is whether the rhinos can continue to be exploited for that long.