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Scientists created fake rhino horn. But should we use it?

By Antipoaching, Illegal trade, Science and technology No Comments
Rachel Nuwer, The New York Times | November 25, 2019

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In Africa, 892 rhinos were poached for their horns in 2018, down from a high of 1,349 killed in 2015. The decline in deaths is encouraging, but conservationists agree that poaching still poses a dire threat to Africa’s rhino population, which hovers around 24,500 animals.

Now, in the hopes of driving down the value of rhino horn and reducing poaching even more, scientists have created a convincing artificial rhino horn made from horsehair.

“We’re not trying to supplant boots-on-the-ground, vigilant customs officials and protection of rhino habitat,” said Fritz Vollrath, a biologist at the University of Oxford and senior author of the study, published in Scientific Reports. “But these measures alone so far have not been sufficient to save the rhino, so what we’re doing here is bringing out a really good fake.”

The product that Dr. Vollrath and colleagues at Fudan University in China have produced looks identical to rhino horn under a microscope. It has a similar chemical signature and behaves like rhino horn when cut or shaved. It even smells the same when burned.

With such properties, Dr. Vollrath believes his artificial horn could be used to covertly flood the market with a cheap, convincing replacement, reducing the demand that leads to rhinos being slaughtered. He also hopes it might provide an educational tool for “demystifying that rhino horn’s something very special,” he said.

A number of experts pushed back, however, saying such a product is unnecessary and even dangerous.

“Conservation people don’t like the idea,” Dr. Vollrath acknowledged.

Some wealthy elites in China and Vietnam continue to give rhino horn as gifts and, in Vietnam, bring it to parties as a hangover preventive. In China, it’s also carved into jewelry and ornate cups, and collected for speculation purposes.

“What we’ve seen is that most rhino horn is now being used for status symbols,” said Olivia Swaak-Goldman, executive director of the Wildlife Justice Commission, a nonprofit organization that investigates wildlife trafficking networks.

Status depends on rhino horn’s exclusivity, high price and rarity — things that Dr. Vollrath believes his artificial horn could undermine. “We are giving back street entrepreneurs the recipe for how to make fake rhino horns, so hopefully people will get it into the market,” he said.

Rhino horn, as Dr. Vollrath puts it, is “nothing but a tuft of nose hair stuck together with glue that comes out of the animal’s nose glands.” He and his colleagues chose horsehair as a basis for their fake rhino horn because horses are a close relative of rhinos. They cleaned and tightly bundled the hair, then bound it together with a mixture of liquefied silk, which stood in for the collagen found in rhino horn, as well as cellulose, which represented the plant material that gets rubbed in as rhinos sharpen their horns.

Pembient, a Seattle-based bioengineering company launched in 2015, is already exploring the development of 3D-printed rhino horn. Matthew Markus, Pembient’s chief executive officer, said he would be open to testing the new horsehair formula. “Their organic matrix is a neat innovation and definitely brings horsehair horn closer to being a good substitute for rhino horn,” he said.

But his company has also faced pushback from conservationists.

Critics say that fake rhino horn risks stimulating demand for real horn, and that it would complicate policing. “There’s already scarce resources for wildlife crime and we don’t want to make it even more difficult for law enforcement,” said Ms. Swaak-Goldman, who works with governments and law enforcement agencies.

Peter Knights, chief executive officer of WildAid, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending illegal wildlife trade, added that the market in Vietnam is already flooded with convincing fakes, like water buffalo horn, which accounts for up to 90 percent of what’s sold as rhino horn. “It’s widely known that there is a lot of fake product out there, so this experiment is already running,” Mr. Knights said.

Frederick Chen, an economist at Wake Forest University, said that there is more than one way to flood a market, however. “Conservation groups tend to clump different strategies under one roof and have a knee-jerk reaction that they have to reject them all,” he said. “But the dangers they point out don’t apply to all strategies.”

Dr. Chen agreed that introducing a product marketed as an artificial alternative would risk driving up demand for real rhino horn. But covertly introducing a product that passes as real rhino horn but later reveals itself to have some undesirable defect — horns that deteriorate after purchase, for example, or horns that, when consumed, trigger a stomach ache — could ultimately undermine demand. “If you introduce quality uncertainty into the market, you are trying to create confusion and essentially destroy the rhino horn market,” he said.

For now, these ideas remain in the realm of theory — and much of that theory goes against real-world evidence suggesting what might happen if the market was flooded with fake horn, said Solomon Hsiang, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Hsiang cautioned, for example, that experiments trying to undermine black markets in elephant ivory by selling legal ivory backfired and ultimately lead to increased poaching.

Engineering fake rhino horn “seems like an elaborate technological approach that is not without potentially serious risk,” Dr. Hsiang said, when a much simpler strategy would be to focus on targeted demand reduction.

According to Lynn Johnson, founder of Nature Needs More, a nonprofit organization that aims to reduce wildlife demand and supply, demand reduction campaigns should focus on top rhino horn users, who are usually wealthy, elite men.

Dr. Johnson interviewed 20 such individuals in Vietnam and found that they do not fall for fakes: They take measures to ensure their purchase is genuine, including working with a trusted supply chain and requesting the rhino’s tail as proof of provenance.

They also told her that they view rhino horn as a luxury product that confers prestige. A 2018 study involving 30 Vietnamese rhino horn buyers found that most no longer believed it could cure cancer — a newfangled use that became popular around a decade ago — but they still sought it out as a symbolic final gesture to comfort terminally ill relatives.

Belief in rhino horn’s traditional medical properties also seems to be on the decline. A survey of 400 people in Vietnam carried out by WildAid in 2016 revealed that 23 percent thought rhino horn had medicinal value — down from 69 percent in 2014.

But so long as influential people continue to hold rhino horn in high regard, Dr. Johnson says that younger and less successful people will also continue to see it as something desirable. “As soon as people can afford the real thing, they’ll buy it,” she said.

Changing the minds of top users — something Dr. Johnson and her colleagues are trying to do — is therefore key to quashing demand, she said.

“I’m a scientist, but you have to know when science won’t help,” she said. “Calls for fake rhino horn just shows that there’s a lack of understanding about the true commercial nature and consumer desire of current demand.”

Enough with the fake rhino horns

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John R. Platt, The Revelator | November 19, 2019

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Earlier this month a team of scientists announced they’ve developed a high-tech way to help save rhinos from poachers: They propose fabricating fake horns out of horse hair (which is also composed of inert keratin, like human fingernails) and then flooding the illegal market with their products, thereby lowering the price of powdered rhino horns so much that no one will ever want to kill another rhino again.


This isn’t the first time someone’s come up with the well-intentioned (yet illogical) idea of creating fake rhino horn, and it probably won’t be the last. But it should be the last, because there are several reasons why this concept, no matter how it’s executed, is doomed to fail.

Let’s explore them.

Original photo as published by The Revelator.

Perhaps most obviously, selling fake rhino horn doesn’t do anything to address the end-user demand for these illegal products, which are driven by either fortunes or phony medicinal claims. These are ultimately the reasons rhinos and many other species are poached in the first place. As a result the best way to eliminate the financial incentive to sell these wildlife products is to get consumers to understand why they shouldn’t be buying them in the first place. We’ve already seen this work; conservationists have finally started to make headway on curbing the shark-fin trade in China after extensive public-awareness campaigns called attention to the dangers the practice poses to people and marine ecosystems. Similar initiatives have started to help chip away at consumer demand for rhino horns there as well (thanks, Jackie Chan).

Progress still needs to be made on reducing the market for products from those species, as well as with other heavily trafficked animals such as pangolins, but that’s another reason why purposefully selling fake rhino horns is wrong: The more you say that any aspect of the market for rhino horn is okay, which is what happens when you put these fake products (or limited real products) up for sale, the more it will expand the market. We’ve seen this before in the surge of elephant poaching after a one-off sale of ivory tusks in 2008, which was meant to flood the market and reduce the profitability of poaching but horrifically backfired. Elephants had begun to recover before that, and now they’re in crisis. Rhinos are already in crisis — do we want to make things even worse?

On a broader and similar note, creating fake substitutes ignores a major aspect of what drives sales of many of these wildlife products. In traditional Asian medicine, “wild” products are considered more potent — and therefore more valuable — than anything that comes out of a lab or from a farm. That’s why China still has trouble commercializing its vast network of tiger farms (yes, you read that right). Consumers want wild products, so even if you do succeed in commercializing “fake” or farmed products, it will tend to normalize demand for all these biological byproducts and further drive desire for “prestige” animals poached from their native habitats.

Meanwhile some well-healed people are actually investing in the possibility of extinction. Rich consumers in China and other countries have been known to buy rhino horns, tiger bones, live tortoises and other species in anticipation that a species will become rarer or even go extinct in the wild, therefore making their assets even more valuable. That threat will never evaporate through the addition of fake products on the marketplace — because, yes, extinction is profitable.

Let’s get to the ethical aspects of this trade in fakes. For one thing many consumers — those who actually use powdered rhino horn as “medicine” instead of holding on to it for eventual sale — are already being exploited. They’re buying into false claims that rhino horn has curative qualities, including the recent and spurious assertion that it can treat cancer. By selling fake rhino horns, you become complicit in that lie and directly harm people who could, and should, seek more appropriate and effective medical care.

Another ethical quandary: How are you going to get these products into the black market without putting your undercover operatives in direct harm from the violent criminals who run wildlife trafficking networks? And do we really think anyone’s going to be able to squeeze these products into the same illegal market that professional law-enforcement operations haven’t been able to shut down? The chances of success there seem slim — and potentially dangerous.

Finally let’s address the invisible gorilla in the room: Selling fake rhino horn doesn’t do anything to resolve the inequality that inspires poaching. More often than not, people hunt illegally to support their families. The monies they get from poaching may mean the difference between comfortable living and going hungry. Sure, their pay comes from the people higher up the clandestine ladder — and sure, some poachers are more criminally minded themselves — but if we want to solve the problem of poaching, we always have to factor in the fate of people on the ground.

Having said all this, I have to point out that the current idea to sell fake rhino horns is just lab science. The researchers fully acknowledge that they don’t have an actual initiative to get these products into the market. They say it’s up to someone else to actually figure out how to make their idea a reality — so for now it’s basically a thought exercise, not a concrete plan.

I have a better idea: Let’s leave this fake horn concept in the lab where it belongs and commit to more practical initiatives to help rhinos — and people — in threatened habitats, where real assistance is desperately needed. With poaching and illegal trafficking still running rampant, rhinos don’t have time left for anything less.

John R. Platt is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard, and numerous other magazines and publications. His “Extinction Countdown” column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.


Selling fake horn in effort to save rhinos from poaching could have opposite effect, inventors warned

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Jane Dalton, The Independent | November 8, 2019

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Scientists hoping to save the rhino from extinction have been warned they risk doing the opposite if they swamp the illegal market with a fake horn they have invented.

Researchers at the University of Oxford and a university in China have developed a substitute using cheap horse hair, which they say could drive down the price of real rhino horn.

The animal’s horn is in high demand, mostly in Vietnam and China, for use as a “traditional” Asian medicine – although it has no proven benefits – as well as ornamental carvings.

Original photo as published by Independent.co.uk: A grass (or white) rhino in northern Kenya; on average more than two a day are poached in Africa. (F Vollrath)

It has also been claimed as an aphrodisiac and a hangover cure. But all international trade in it is illegal.

Hundreds of African rhinos are killed every year for their horn, with poachers still taking an average of two-and-a-half every day, according to the Save the Rhino conservation charity. Three of the five species are critically endangered, meaning they face a high chance of becoming extinct.

Rhino horn is formed of tufts of tightly packed hair comprising solid keratin, which human hair and fingernails are also made of. The university experts have made a new material by gluing together horse tail hair, stripped of its outer layer, to form what they say is a realistic substitute.

“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,” said Fritz Vollrath, of the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology.

He 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.”

But Born Free, the UK-based wildlife conservation charity, warned that flooding the market with such a substance could not only threaten rhinos further by stimulating demand, but also undermine efforts to educate buyers and make it harder to enforce the trade ban.

Mark Jones, a wildlife expert at Born Free, said: “If you flood the market with a product that purports to be horn, you can stimulate demand and send confusing messages to consumers, having previously told them they shouldn’t buy it.

“It could also make the job of enforcement authorities very difficult: if they have to distinguish between white powders that can be hard. A great deal of effort goes into protecting rhinos from poaching, and if you suddenly introduce a product into a market that’s based on complicated, nuanced social and cultural beliefs, and expect consumers to switch, that’s unrealistic.”

Born Free would like to talk to the researchers to express their concern, he said, adding: “We would have serious reservations.”

There could potentially be regulations relating to fraud as well, Mr Jones said.

In response, Prof Vollrath said: “Our key message is simple: rhino horn is just a tuft of nose hair. Nothing magical about it. It’s easy to replicate, very cheaply.

Why would anyone pay for expensive nose hair? “Any buyer would be fooled – and more fool him (because he is bound to be male).”

In the past decade, 8,889 African rhinos have been poached.

Save the Rhino has opposed previous efforts by four US companies to produce synthetic or bio-fabricated rhino horn.

In 2015, a coalition of more than 10 conservation groups warned against promoting fake horn as it would remove “the stigma” of rhino horn consumption and create “unnecessary obstacles for law enforcement”. It could also lend credibility to scientifically unproven medicinal beliefs, they said.

Scientists create fake rhino horn from horsehair in a bid to save the species

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Amy Woodyatt, CNN | November 8, 2019

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Scientists have developed a fake rhino horn using horsehair, in a bid to create “credible fakes” to flood the market and reduce demand for the material.

Researchers from the University of Oxford created the synthetic horn by bundling horse hairs, gluing them together with a matrix of regenerated silk to mimic the collagenous properties of authentic rhino horn.

Rhinos are often poached for their horn, which buyers believe can cure health problems from hangovers to cancer.

Persistent poaching and habitat loss has led to a decline in the world’s rhino population — according to conservation organization Save the Rhino, 892 of the animals were killed in Africa in 2018.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), there are an estimated 20,000 white rhinos, 5,000 black rhinos and 3,500 greater one-horn rhinos left alive. There are believed to be fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos, and fewer than 68 Javan rhinos — both considered to be critically endangered species.

The international trade in rhino horn has been banned since 1977, regulated by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), but individual countries determine their own laws that allow or prohibit its sale domestically, according to Save the Rhino.

Original photo as published by Edition.cnn.com: Rhinos are often poached for their horn, which some buyers believe can cure health problems.

In research published Friday in the journal Scientific Reports, the Oxford scientists said they were able to fabricate samples that looked and felt like real rhino horn — something they hope will allow for “credible fakes” to flood the market, confusing consumers and diminishing demand for the product.

Researchers said analytical studies showed the fake horsehair horn demonstrated similar composition and properties to natural horn, which grows from a tightly packed tuft of hair on the animal’s nose.

‘It appears from our investigation that it is rather easy as well as cheap to make a bio-inspired hornlike material that mimics the rhino’s extravagantly expensive tuft of nose hair,” co-lead author Professor Fritz Vollrath, from the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology, said in a statement.

“We leave it to others to develop this technology further with the aim to confuse the trade, depress prices and thus support rhino conservation,” he added.

Vollrath told CNN that by demonstrating how easily fake rhino horn can be created, he hoped potential consumers would think twice about buying rhino horn for huge sums.

“What I am hoping is that the story gets out that rhino horn is not some magical substance — it is hair, glued together with sticky stuff that comes out of the nose. It’s nothing special, nothing magical,” Vollrath told CNN.

However, the research has met with skepticism from conservationists.

WWF told CNN that it did not believe the marketing of fake or synthetic horn would reduce levels of rhino poaching.

“One of the known characteristics of the Asian consumer markets since the poaching crisis erupted in 2007 has been the high quantity of fake horn in circulation,” a WWF spokesperson told CNN in a statement.

“In spite of this rhino poaching levels have risen relentlessly, because many buyers still prefer the real product and will take some trouble to acquire it from sources they deem trustworthy.”

“A number of developers are working on creating a synthetic product, which, it is claimed, would be ‘biologically identical’ to real horn. This raises the obvious question as to how enforcement personnel could tell the two products apart, especially if they are both marketed as powder or as an ingredient in other medicinal or manufactured products,” the spokesperson said.

Cathy Dean, CEO of Save the Rhino, told CNN that flooding the market with fake product would hamper law enforcement efforts to clamp down on the trade in rhino horn.

“If you catch somebody who is trafficking a real rhino horn, they could plead a line of defense that they thought they were carrying a horsehair horn — it would make the whole prosecution process very, very difficult,” Dean told CNN.

Dean told CNN that the invention wouldn’t deter those seeking the full, intact rhino horns often bought by wealthy individuals.

“The main driver of the poaching prices is very wealthy businessmen willing to splash out large sums of money to buy a whole horn which they would then display,” Dean said.

“They want the real thing, they want to demonstrate that they have the power, the wealth, the connections to be able to buy this illicit product,” she added.