Researchers from Oxford and Fudan University in Shanghai, China have managed to created the first convincing synthetic rhino horn by using a combination of regenerated silk and horse hair.
The demand for horns is at an all time high, putting the entire rhino population at risk. In some cultures, rhino horns are believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac, despite there being no scientific research to back up that claim. Researchers believe the reality behind this strange belief is down to the fact that the people selling the rhino horns on the black market are mixing it with real drugs such as viagra.
To combat the threat to rhinos, researchers have come up with this highly convincing synthetic rhino horn. In order to understand how the ‘fake horn’ works, you first need to understand that a real horn isn’t made of bone, instead it is made of hair that naturally forms together due to sebaceous glands, which then forms what we view as a horn. To mimic the real horns, researchers used hair from horses, as they are closest living relatives to the rhino, along with a matrix of regenerated silk to bind the horse hairs together.
(Image A&C are real horns, image B&D are the fake horns) Image: Scientific Reports
When the horse hair is mixed with the regenerated silk, it essentially mimics the collagenous component (protein made-up of amino-acids) found in real rhino horns, forming a substance that is remarkably similar to a real rhino horn.
The idea behind the fake rhino horns isn’t to surgically affix them onto rhinos. Instead, researchers hope to flood the black market with fake horns that are so close to the real thing no one would be able to tell them apart.
If enough fakes are able to penetrate the black market, prices would inevitably drop, which would in turn reduce the incentive for poachers. Once the market has been flooded with fakes, the risk of poaching such a dangerous animal would outweigh the monetary rewards, and eventually the entire market would crash.
“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. Whether flooding the market with confusing horn copies will ultimately lead to saving rhinos roaming in the wild remains to be seen,” researchers explained to Scientific Reports.