Rhino Horn: World’s Most Endangered Nose Hair
Rhino horn is extremely valuable, so much so that populations of wild rhinos are being poached out of existence across the globe. Much of the demand comes from traditional Chinese medicine, which uses the ground-up horn as a treatment for a variety of maladies. It’s an issue that we’ve covered with some regularity in our library, and it’s an issue that garners a great deal of public support for conservation efforts.
To preserve the few animals and species left, numerous efforts are underway to create a synthetic substitute with the goal of undermining the market for horns. The idea is that, by flooding the market with fake rhino horn, the real horn will be harder to identify, and it will drive the overall value rhino horn on the black market down.
To understand how synthetic horn is made, it’s important to note that Rhino horn is not a true horn. Instead, it’s a tuft of tightly packed hair glued together by exudates from the sebaceous glands on the rhino’s nose. In a sense, it’s more of a “nose hair” than a horn. In this experiment, researchers created a realistic, faux version of rhino horn using tail hair from horses. Horsehair is similar in size and structure to rhino nose hair. To create the fake, researchers bundled and glued together horsetail hairs using a silk protein to mimic the collagen found in real horn.
The resulting composite material was extremely similar to real rhino horn in look and feel. Indeed, analysis of the structural and chemical makeup of the faux horn showed it to be almost indistinguishable from natural rhino horn. Not only was the process of making the fake horn easy, it was also relatively inexpensive. In other words, the researchers succeeded in their mission of making a cheap, easy to manufacture fake horn that could cause immense confusion in the black marketplace.
The apparent ease of creating faux rhino horn poses a dilemma for animal advocates. It presents an opportunity to disrupt the market for natural horn and perhaps save some species from extinction. Trade in rhino horn is illegal but continues because of the horn’s value to traditional medical practices. Fake horn materials could drive down the value of real horn, making poaching far less lucrative. But is it justifiable to deceive buyers by unleashing large amounts of fake product into the market, a move which could have the effect of simply normalizing the product? In other words, does the end justify the means?