Can the synthetic horn save the Rhino ?

Updated: Jan 2, 2021

Opinions of Scientists and Conservationists remain divisive regarding the introduction of manmade Rhino horns into the black market to combat poaching.

African and Asian Rhinos have been subject to heavy persecution at the hands of man for centuries and some species have become some of the most infamous and recognisable poster children for conservation efforts worldwide.

According to WWF, at the start of the 20th century, 500,000 Rhinos were estimated to inhabit grasslands, savannahs and forests throughout Africa and Asia. in 1970, this number had decreased to 70,000, today, this number sits at a mere 29,000 (1).

In response to poaching, governments and conservationists have devised and implemented a number of measures aimed to address the illegal trade of Rhino horn and provide hope for the remaining five species. Some examples of strategies include the forming and guarding of protected national parks, tracking initiatives, education of locals and many strategies aimed to interrupt the movement of product to the black market.

In addition to more traditional approaches adopted to impede black market trade, some more creative anti-poaching initiatives have been explored in the field and tested for efficacy. One such example being used In South Africa by the Rhino rescue project involves the infusion of Rhino horns with a compound mixture consisting of dye and ectoparasiticides, aimed to render the horn damaged and undesirable (2).

More recently, the synthetic production of Rhino horns and proposed release of these into the black market is seen by some to be another weapon that might be added to the anti-poaching arsenal. This would involve production and sale of large masses of rhino horn in the hope that flooding the market on the supply side would reduce price, thus disincentivizing poachers. Fritz Vollrath, a Biologist from the University of Oxford working on the project with several other scientists at Fudan University, China created a horn made from horsehair visually indiscernible from the real thing at a microscopic level. Vollrath hopes that this development can be used to demystify the Rhino horn as “something very special”. At the most fundamental level, after all, according to Vollrath the Rhino horn is “nothing but a tuft of nose hair stuck together with glue that comes out of the animal's nose glands”(3).

Microscopic cross section of the fake, synthetic Rhino horn (B, D) and the real thing (A, C) (3).

Though according to supply and demand economics the widespread distribution of synthetic horns would logically reduce price, a handful of biologists and conservationists have opposed the idea. Many believe that the synthetic replacement would not be perceived as sharing the same medicinal, spiritual or ornamental value as the real thing. In China and Vietnam, the countries responsible for highest demand, Rhino horn is primarily used in traditional medicine (given to treat many conditions/ailments including cancer, headaches and hangovers), in ceremonial practices and to be displayed ornamentally (in homes or as part of jewellery), to represent wealth and status of the owner (5).

When purchasing expensive products, consumers tend to ensure product legitimacy by buying from trusted sellers which would make the introduction of synthetic alternatives difficult. Accounts in China and Vietnam report that horns are DNA tested by some buyers so that the true product is being bought (4). In addition to this, sceptics have hypothesised that where the release of an inferior substitute product may satisfy a market unable to afford the real thing, this introduction may encourage new buyers previously priced out of the market to start using or may shift the perception of the product from being a luxury to being essential.

Though it might be unwise to completely disregard the production of synthetic Rhino Horns, it's clear that it is not currently the saving grace some once perceived it to be. If synthetic Rhino horn is to serve its intended purpose, then it must not only be visually and structurally identical but genetically also. Additionally, successful market infiltration might take years of preparation and financial backing meaning a large opportunity cost would be attached towards practical implementation – could finite conservation funding be used elsewhere more effectively?

With the future of the Rhino family finely in the balance, the next few decades are likely to prove critical in deciding all species’ future survival. Even over the next few years, the fates of the Sumatran Rhino (Population = 80) (6) and Javan Rhino (Population = 58–68) (7) are likely to be decided. In order to ensure these magnificent and ancient animals are not lost to the history books more must be done to ensure their protection, not only in the field and through new research/ innovative technology development but by anyone with an interest in saving them by supporting charities and organisations responsible for their protection.

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