Explained — Fake ‘horns’ in the lab: will they save rhinos?https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-fake-horns-in-the-lab-will-they-save-rhinos-6110716/

Explained — Fake ‘horns’ in the lab: will they save rhinos?

Study describes method to create fakes using horse hairs, rhino experts not convinced it can stop poaching

Unlike the horn of a cow, at the core of which is live bone, the rhino’s horn is actually a tuft of hair that grows, tightly packed, and glued together on the nose by a mass of cells and fluid. (Express File Photo)

THE MAIN reason why rhinos of all species are poached, including the one-horned Indian rhinoceros found mostly in Assam, is that there is a market for its horn. In Chinese traditional medicine, the rhino horn is believed to have medicinal and other health benefits, including working as an aphrodisiac — an idea that remains a threat to rhino populations.

Now, researchers have proposed a solution — fake horns. They have described a method for creating fake “rhino horns” using horse hair, and suggested that if the market could be flooded with these, then the demand for real rhino horns would go down. The proposal has been met with incredulity by rhino conservation experts in India.

What the research claims

Scientists from the University of Oxford and Fudan University, Shanghai, have described their method in a paper published on Friday in the journal Scientific Reports. They have suggested that the method will provide a blueprint to create “credible fakes” that could eventually flood the rhino horn market.

Unlike the horn of a cow, at the core of which is live bone, the rhino’s horn is actually a tuft of hair that grows, tightly packed, and glued together on the nose by a mass of cells and fluid. The scientists relied on the horse, which is the rhino’s near relative, bundled together its tail hairs and glued them together with a matrix of regenerated silk. These sample structures, they have reported, were similar to real rhino horn in look, feel and properties, as shown by analytical studies.

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In order to confuse the market, the authors stressed, plausible copies should be simple to produce while being similar. The composite they created is easily moulded into a “rhino horn copy” with a microstructure that, when cut and polished, is remarkably similar to that of the real horn, they said.

The composition and the method of preparation should be the same for Indian and African rhinos, co-lead author Fritz Vollrath, professor of zoology at Oxford, told The Indian Express in reply to a question. In a statement on the Oxford website, Vollrath said, “We leave it to others to develop this technology further with the aim to confuse the trade, depress prices and thus support rhino conservation.”

Questions over effectiveness

If fakes do infiltrate the market, the question is whether buyers will eventually become conscious enough to avoid them. “It’s a black market already and dodgy entrepreneurs will find ways… Exposing the rhino horn for what it is i.e. a tuft of hair, albeit a hugely expensive one that is easily replicated, should rattle the end customer and make him consider spending good money on it,” Vollrath said, by email.

In India, rhino conservation experts were unconvinced when the study was brought to their notice. “The fake rhino horn concept will not work,” said Dr Bibhab K Talukdar, chair, Asian Rhino Specialist Group of International Union for Conservation of Nature/Species Survival Commission; Asia coordinator, International Rhino Foundation; and CEO and secretary general of the NGO Aaranyak. “… Whether fake or real horn trade, the intention is to make money. So this is not going to help rhinos in the wild, either way!” Talukdar said.

Amit Sharma, head of Rhino Conservation, World Wildlife Fund, noted he has not seen the study, “but my view is that people are always looking for genuine products as they value it. This is true for any commodity. There will always be check and balance especially for products of high value and demand.”

At Kaziranga National Park, home to over 2,000 rhinos, the number of rhinos poached has decreased from 27 in 2014 to six in 2017. For these horns, too, the market is China. Talukdar said in the last few years horns from Assam, and North Bengal, are being transported to China via Myanmar.

— Inputs from Tora Agarwala in Guwahati