Scientists have created a method for manufacturing fake rhino horns using horsehair.
Their hope is that by releasing these fake products into the illegal rhino horn market, they will undermine the sellers of genuine horns.
In doing so they aim to combat the harmful effects of poaching on the endangered species.
A Trojan horse made of horsehair
Researchers from the University of Oxford and Fudan University teamed up to develop the method for making fake rhino horns out of horsehair.
The survival of the rhino species is threatened, and poaching is largely to blame for this. Sadly, rhino horn is seen as an aphrodisiac and traditional medicine in several countries, including China and Vietnam. This has kept demand high despite official initiatives to prevent the trade.
As the BBC reports, the Oxford team hopes the fakes will "confuse the trade".
However, some critics say it could make things worse. Save the Rhino International, for example, warns that fake horns could inadvertently increase demand and stimulate the rhino horn market.
As the non-profit points out, the horn is typically ground into a powder and used to cure snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning, and “devil possession.” Individuals who use the horn as a cure for superstitious ailments are likely to buy a fake version regardless, it could be argued.
The conservation charity says it is more important to focus efforts on anti-poaching measures.
How do they make the fake rhino horns?
Despite this, the scientists from Oxford and Fudan University believe they have made a credible version of the horn that can be cheaply mass-produced.
While others have created fake rhino horns with the same intention, the key difference here is the cheap production cost.
The researchers believe that filling the market with these fake horns will lower the price of the product and, therefore, reduce poaching.
"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," Prof Fritz Vollrath, from the University of Oxford's Department of Zoology told the BBC.
Rhino horns are in fact formed from strands of tightly packed hair. Secretions from the rhino glue the strands together forming the horn, meaning it is different from a cow horn or elephant tusk.
The team of zoologists in Oxford and molecular scientists at Fudan University in Shanghai created a way of compressing and shaping horsehair in such a way that it looks and feels incredibly similar to a real rhino horn — making it suitable to be sent in to infiltrate the market. The researchers' study was published in Nature.