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Scientists Create Fake Rhino Horn to Fight Poaching

Animals

Scientists have developed an innovative way to protect endangered rhinos from poaching: flood the market for rhino horn with a cheap, fake alternative.


The team from the University of Oxford and Fudan University in China found a way to make a fake rhino horn cheaply from horse hair, BBC News reported.

"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," University of Oxford Department of Zoology professor Fritz Vollrath told BBC News.

The researchers published their achievement in Scientific Reports Friday, in the hopes that it could be used to protect the endangered animals.

"Demand for rhino horn is driving poaching with devastating effect for the few individuals left of the few species surviving from this once numerous, widespread and cosmopolitan clade of pachyderms," the researchers noted in the abstract.

Rhino horn, which is desirable in traditional Chinese medicine and also for decorative carvings, has driven the poaching of the species: 769 rhinos were poached in 2018 in South Africa alone, according to The Guardian. On the continent as a whole, 892 were killed that year, CNN reported. Currently there are around 20,000 white rhinos, 5,000 black rhinos, 3,500 greater one-horn rhinos, fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos and fewer than 68 Javan rhinos left alive, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

That's where the fake horn comes in.

"The economists seem to think that if you flood the market with substitutes, the price will drop," Vollrath told 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 scientists said they would leave it up to others to develop their idea further, but some conservationists don't think the fake horn is the right road to rhino protection.

"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," Dr. Richard Thomas from the wildlife organization Traffic told The Guardian.

Further, a WWF spokesperson told CNN that fake rhino horn was already sold on the market:

"One of the known characteristics of the Asian consumer markets since the poaching crisis erupted in 2007 has been the high quantity of fake horn in circulation," a WWF spokesperson told CNN in a statement.

"In spite of this rhino poaching levels have risen relentlessly, because many buyers still prefer the real product and will take some trouble to acquire it from sources they deem trustworthy."

Thomas said that, instead, those looking to protect rhinos should focus on reducing demand by both encouraging a shift in consumer behavior and enforcing measures against the trade.

Save the Rhino International Deputy Director John Taylor agreed.

"There is no substitute for anti-poaching measures at one end and reducing demand at the other," he told BBC News.

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