Scientists hope to flood illegal rhino horn market with horsehair fakes

8 Nov 2019

Image: © fishcat007/

Ground-up rhino horn is highly prized in Chinese medicine, but these days it may just be a vessel for Viagra.

Rhinos across the world are facing extinction with poachers eager to obtain their horns. Rather than hanging them on a wall as a trophy, similar to the tusks of elephants, the horn is very much sought after in Chinese medicine.

In the ancient Chinese tradition, powdered rhino horn is believed to an aphrodisiac. However, the reality today is that often those who sell it cut up the ground horn with Viagra.

Now, in a bid to prevent rhinos from going extinct, researchers from the University of Oxford have found a way to accurately replicate the horn using horsehair. Unlike the horns of other animals such as cows, the rhino horn is actually a tuft of hair that is tightly packed and glued together by fluids from the sebaceous glands on the animal’s nose.

A pencil sketch of a rhino on the left and a comparison of fibres of the real and fake rhino horns.

A cross-section comparison (right) between the rhino horn fibres (bottom) and the faux horn (top). Image: Jonathan Kingdon

Materials science in conservation

In a paper published to Scientific Reports, the researchers bundled together tail hairs of the horse – a near relative of the rhino – and glued them together with a specialised matrix of regenerated silk to mimic the collagenous component of the real horn.

This process allowed them to create a horn almost identical to a rhino’s in look, feel and properties. Further analysis under the microscope revealed the similarities in composition and properties with the natural and the faux horns.

“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 Prof Fritz Vollrath, co-lead author of the research. “We leave it to others to develop this technology further with the aim to confuse the trade, depress prices and thus support rhino conservation.”

The researchers said that it is important that plausible copies should be simple to produce, while being very similar in both structure and chemical composition. Adding to this, they said their bio-composite design is easily moulded into the rhino horn shape.

Ruixin Mi, another co-author of the study, said: “Our study demonstrates that materials science can contribute to fundamental issues in biology and conservation.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic