The fight against illegal animal poaching has exacted a high toll on communities around the world as smugglers and organized crime groups constantly gain the upper-hand on corrupt officials and militarized law enforcement bodies, leading some researchers with the United Nations to call the battle against rhino poaching, in particular, an “unwinnable war.”
However, scientists have developed what they hope will be a powerful weapon against illegal poachers and the black market: a fake rhino horn comprised of horse hairs.
Experts hope that if they can swamp the market with credible fakes, consumers will simply no longer seek out authentic rhino horns.
Prof. Fritz Vollrath, a co-author of the new study at the University of Oxford, told the Guardian:
The economists seem to think that if you flood the market with substitutes, the price will drop.
If the price drops and the penalty of having rhino horn is still very high, then the value proposition changes for the trader.
In the new study published by the journal Scientific Reports, the scientists detailed how they were able to create convincing fake rhino horns by gluing together cheap horse hair using an adhesive made with a regenerated silk-like substance, mimicking the collagenous material which makes up real rhino horns.
Researchers noted that the fake horsehair horn had a very similar composition to natural horn, which grows out of the tightly-packed tufts of hair on the nose of the rhinoceros.
In a statement, Vollrath said:
It appears from our investigation that it is rather easy as well as cheap to make a bio-inspired hornlike material that mimics the rhino’s extravagantly expensive tuft of nose hair.
We leave it to others to develop this technology further with the aim to confuse the trade, depress prices and thus support rhino conservation.
Rhino horn has long been coveted across the globe, where it finds its ways into traditional Chinese medicinal concoctions as well as ornamental carvings. Some buyers even believe that rhino horn can cure cancer.
Yet the demand for rhino horn has driven a frenzy of poaching, with 892 of the creatures being killed in Africa in 2018. Some daring thieves have even attempted to steal rhino horns from Europe’s museums. Paired with habitat loss, the global rhino population has precipitously declined in recent years.
The World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that only 20,000 white rhinos, 5,000 black rhinos, and 3,500 greater one-horns are still alive. Meanwhile, there are only 80 Sumatran rhinos and less than 68 Javan rhinos, making both species critically endangered.
While Dr. Richard Thomas from conservationist group Traffic welcomed the good intentions of the study, he has cautioned against the potential risks of the approach. He said:
Pushing a synthetic alternative could help to reinforce the perception that rhino horn is a desirable commodity, thus perpetuating existing demand, while presenting consumers with a synthetic alternative may actually stimulate demand for the real thing, thus exacerbating the existing situation.
And while specialists may be able to tell the fake horn from the authentic using a microscope or trade expertise, law enforcement bodies could be confused by the proliferation of the horsehair horns.
Instead, Thomas believes that other methods for reducing demand should be used. He explained:
This can be achieved through long-term consumer behavioral change interventions coupled with strong enforcement measures to deter would-be and existing consumers of rhino horn.