Researchers with Fudan University in Shanghai and the University of Oxford have developed fake rhino horn crafted from horse hair, paving the way for realistic fakes that can be used to flood the horn market. Fake animal horn is a common way to drive down prices and demand in the market, reducing the incentive for poachers to illegally hunt the wild animals.
Rhino populations in the wild are dwindling, something largely due to poaching spurred by demand for the horn on the black market. Disrupting this market is the most effective way to reduce the poaching, but doing so requires highly realistic fakes that are hard to detect, introducing uncertainty among buyers who may be unwilling to pay a high price for what may ultimately be fake products.
Researchers with Oxford note that the rhino’s horn is not actually a horn, at least not in the normal sense of the word. Rather, the horn is made of hair that forms together due to the sebaceous glands, essentially forming a ‘horn.’ Horses are the closest living relatives to the rhino, making them the ideal source for hair to make the fake horns.
The researchers describe their project as a ‘proof of concept,’ one that involves using a ‘bespoke matrix of regenerated silk’ to bind together horse tail hair. Doing this essentially mimics the ‘collagenous component’ found in actual rhino horns, the result being fake ‘rhino horn’ that was very difficult to tell from the actual thing.
Key to the fakes is the relatively simple construction, keeping cost and effort low. Cut sections of the fake horn can be polished and retain what the researchers say is a ‘remarkably similar’ appearance to the real thing. Getting these horns into the market, however, will require others to step up with the tech to mass-produce the products.