Can a Glut of Fake Horns Save Real Rhinos?

An eastern black rhino stares down the camera. It's horn, which is made of keratin, is a valuable commodity. But researchers are trying to make it less so. Nagel Photography/Shutterstock

Soon, anyone looking to buy a rhino horn on the black market will have a new problem on their hands. How to tell a real horn from a fake.

In a bid to save the imperiled rhino, scientists have designed the ultimate decoy — a horn made from horse hair that has the same look and feel as that of a rhino. The plan, as described in a newly published research paper, is to swamp the black market where rhino parts are typically bought and sold with fakes. And just maybe the fakes will become prevalent enough to undermine the value of the real McCoys.

"The economists seem to think that if you flood the market with substitutes, the price will drop," Fritz Vollrath, co-author of the research at the University of Oxford, tells The Guardian. "If the price drops and the penalty of having rhino horn is still very high, then the value proposition changes for the trader."

The effort to destabilize the economics of poaching is the latest salvo conservationists have launched in an attempt to stave off the animal's looming extinction.

Rhino horn has long been sought for its purported medicinal value. It's a staple, for instance, in traditional Chinese medicine, thanks to unsubstantiated claims that it can ease fever and pain, as well as boost libido.

As a result, an animal that has been stomping around on this planet for some 50 million years now stands at extinction's door. Its numbers have plummeted from roughly 500,000 a century ago to a mere 29,000 in the wild today. Black rhinos, in particular, are in trouble — with the Western black variety only recently being declared extinct. At the same time, southern white rhinos are doing their part, acting as surrogates to save the northern white rhino species after the death of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino on Earth.

Yet hundreds of these magnificent animals are still routinely poached for their parts. Last year, according to Save the Rhino International, 769 of the animals were poached in South Africa, home to the largest rhino population in the world. Mercifully, that's a down-tick from the previous year, when 1,028 rhinos lost their lives for their horns.

"The decline in the number of poached rhinos may demonstrate that the anti-poaching work taking place is having an effect, or it may also demonstrate that with significantly fewer rhinos surviving in the wild, it is getting harder for poachers to locate their prey," Save the Rhino notes on its website.

And now, thanks to the efforts of Oxford scientists, it may be even harder for buyers to get their hands on the real deal.

But will it be convincing enough? Rhino horns are unique in that they are composed entirely of solid keratin — the same protein found in hair and fingernails. The fakes use hair taken from the tail of a horse — an animal that shares many genetic similarities with the rhino. The hairs are glued together using a silk-based substance that mimics materials found in real horns. Cellulose is added to the impostor horn to suggest the plant materials that are present when a rhino sharpens its horn.

It all adds up to a convincing counterfeit that's poised to flood the market. And, like any cheap imitation, the fake model will only get more convincing as its production is refined.

"It appears from our investigation that it is rather easy as well as cheap to make a bio-inspired horn-like material that mimics the rhino's extravagantly expensive tuft of nose hair," the scientists note in the research paper. "We leave it to others to attempt to take our technology further and perhaps even go so far as to fool punters into buying it in replacement or indeed in preference to the real, and extremely expensive, rhino horn."