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Scientists create fake rhino horn out of horse hair

But it's an open question whether flooding the black market with artificial horns will reduce poaching of the majestic animals.

This rhino lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Amanda Kooser/CNET

What do rhinoceroses and horses have in common? A shared ancestor. This fact came into play as scientists from the University of Oxford and Fudan University in China developed a way to create an artificial rhino horn, which could potentially be used to reduce poaching that feeds the black market.

The researchers described the artificial horn as "confusingly similar to real rhino horn."  

"We bundled together tail hairs of the rhino's ubiquitous near relative, the horse, to be glued together with a bespoke matrix of regenerated silk mimicking the collagenous component of the real horn," the scientists wrote in a paper published Friday in the journal Scientific Reports

These images show real rhino horn on the left and an artificial horn on the right. 

Ruixin Mi, Z. Z. Shao & F. Vollrath

Rhino horn is in demand in Asia as an aphrodisiac, though Oxford says it's often mixed with ground-up Viagra. 

Rhino poachers have decimated wild populations to supply the black market. The last male northern white rhino died in Kenya in 2018. Other groups of rhinos continue to be targets.

The horse hair works so well as a corollary because the rhino doesn't have a typical horn made primarily of bone. It's actually formed primarily from keratin, the same protein found in hair. The researchers said their fake horn can be shaped and polished to resemble the real thing. It's also economical to make. 

Several companies are already working on synthetic rhino hornsPembient is one of these. It uses 3D bioprinting to make a material that's genetically identical to the real thing.   

The researchers suggest the fake horn might be used to flood the underground market, drive down prices and discourage poaching, but they don't take a stand on whether this is a good idea to put into practice.

"Whether flooding the market with confusing horn copies will ultimately lead to saving rhinos roaming in the wild remains to be seen," the researchers wrote. The team is leaving it up to conservation economists to determine if this method might work. 

There is controversy around the concept of creating and selling synthetic horns. Conservation groups International Rhino Foundation (IRF) and Save the Rhino International "declared their opposition to the manufacture, marketing and sale of the product" in 2015 over concerns that it could increase demand for real horn and in turn lead to more poaching. 

There are no easy answers here. This new horn substitute is inexpensive to make and almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Whether it goes beyond proof of concept will be up to other researchers to determine.