Can Fake Horns Save the Rhino? That’s … Extremely Thorny

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.

At left in images A and C, a cross section of a real rhino horn. Images B and D are the artificial horn made in the lab.

Photograph: Scientific Reports

The Oxford team focused on verisimilitude, with the idea that if you can confuse buyers, the price of horn will eventually crater as potential acquirers either sate their desires with cheaper wares or grow skittish of buying the wrong thing. Rhino horns don’t grow like the antlers of a deer (made of bone) or the tusks of an elephant (giant teeth). They’re made of hairs growing out of the nose, stuck tightly together with excretions from glands. With this new technique, the researchers used hairs from horses, the rhino’s closest relative. Like our own hair, these strands are scaly, while the rhino’s are smooth, so they used lithium bromide to chemically etch away horsehair’s rough outer layer. The researchers then bundled the horsehairs together in a tube and glued them together using a substance made of silk and cellulose.

“If you then polish it, it looks very, very similar to rhino horn,” says Vollrath. If you cross-section it, it looks similar as well. Same with chemical and mechanical analyses. “So we have now a material that resembles rhino horn in many ways.”

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