Scientists have created fake rhino horn using horse hair and hope it could be used to flood the market and drive down the price so that poaching would no longer be profitable.
Powdered rhino horn is a popular aphrodisiac in Chinese medicine and can command high prices, often because sellers mix it with erectile dysfunction drugs such as Viagra.
But now scientists at the University of Oxford and Fudan University, Shanghai, have shown it is possible to bundle horse hair together in a way that mimics the material.
The horn of the rhinoceros is not a horn like that of a cow, but a tuft of hair that grows tightly-packed and bound together by natural glue from sebaceous glands on the nose of the animal.
The new approach allowed researchers to fabricate samples that were confusingly similar to real rhino horn in look and feel.
Co-lead author, Professor Fritz Vollrath, from the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology, said: ‘It appears from our investigation that it is rather easy as well as cheap to make a bio-inspired hornlike material that mimics the rhino’s extravagantly expensive tuft of nose hair.
“We leave it to others to develop this technology further with the aim to confuse the trade, depress prices and thus support rhino conservation.’
Rhinos are critically endangered because of the trade in its horn. The new material is easily moulded into a rhino horn shape and has an underlying structure that, when cut and polished, is remarkably similar to that of the real horn.
Co-author, Ruixin Mi, from the Department of Macromolecular Science, Fudan University, said: ‘Our study demonstrates that materials science can contribute to fundamental issues in biology and conservation.
“The fundamental structure of the rhino horn is a highly evolved and tough fibre reinforced bio-composite and we hope that our attempts to copy it will not only undermine the trade in rhino horn but might also find uses as a novel bio-inspired material.”
The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.