How to Save the Rhino: Fake Rhino Horns Flood the Market

Rhinoceros horns are big business. Traditional Chinese medicine uses them to treat rheumatism and gout… And Yemeni craftsmen carve them into dagger handles. A kilogram can thus command as much as $60,000, so there is tremendous incentive for poachers to hunt the animals. Since almost all rhinoceros populations are endangered, several critically, this is a serious problem. Some conservationists therefore suggest that a way to reduce pressure on the animals might be to flood the market with fakes. This, they hope, would reduce the value of real horns and consequently the incentive to hunt rhinos.

That would require the fakes to be good. But Fritz Vollrath, a zoologist at Oxford University, reckons his skills as a forger are up to the challenge. As he writes in Scientific Reports, he and his colleagues from Fudan University, in Shanghai, have come up with a cheap and easy-to-make knock-off that is strikingly similar to the real thing.  The main ingredient of Dr Vollrath’s forged horns is horsehair. Despite their differing appearances, horses and rhinos are reasonably closely related. Horses do not have horns, of course. But, technically, neither do rhinos. Unlike the structures that adorn cattle and bison, which have cores made of bone, the “horns” of rhinoceros are composed of hairs bound tightly together by a mixture of dead cells.  Examination under a microscope showed that hairs collected from horses’ tails had similar dimensions and symmetry to those found in the horns of rhinos. 

The next task they tackled was making a suitable glue. This is made from a fibrous protein-rich glue of the sort produced naturally by spiders and silkworms. They bundled the treated horse hairs as tightly as they could in a matrix of this glue, and then left the bundles in an oven to dry.  The result was a material that, with some polishing, looked like rhino horn….DNA analysis would certainly reveal fakes, but such analysis is complicated and therefore hard to do in the sorts of back rooms in which rhino-horn sales tend to take place. The forgeries passed other tests with flying colors, though…

Excerpts from How to forge rhinoceros horn, Economist, Nov. 16, 2019

For more details see Creating artificial Rhino Horns from Horse Hair

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