Chinese research scientists have teamed up with zoologists at Oxford University to create a technique for making fake rhino horn, which they hope will disrupt the market for illegal poached items.

The team at Fudan University in Shanghai have helped create an alternative made from horse hair, and it is hoped that flooding the market with this will confuse the trade that is driving the endangered African animal to the verge of extinction.

“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, from the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology, adding that he hoped its introduction would “confuse the trade, depress prices and thus support rhino conservation”.

The study’s co-author, Mi Ruixin, from the Department of Macromolecular Science at Fudan University, added: “Our study demonstrates that materials science can contribute to fundamental issues in biology and conservation.

“The fundamental structure of the rhino horn is a highly evolved and tough fibre reinforced bio-composite and we hope that our attempts to copy it will not only undermine the trade in rhino horn but might also find uses as a novel bio-inspired material.”

However, wildlife campaigners have said that despite its good intentions, the new product could potentially make the situation worse.

“Pushing a synthetic alternative could help to reinforce the perception that rhino horn is a desirable commodity, thus perpetuating existing demand,” said Richard Thomas from the wildlife organization Traffic, “while presenting consumers with a synthetic alternative may actually stimulate demand for the real thing, thus exacerbating the existing situation.”

Rhino horn is considered particularly desirable as a status symbol as well as playing a certain medical role in some Asian economies including Vietnam and China, but John Taylor, deputy director of Save the Rhino International, said he was not sure how they would manage to infiltrate the market, and the best solution remained to end the trade altogether.

“There is no substitute for anti-poaching measures at one end and reducing demand at the other,” he added.

There have been other attempts to perfect a fake alternative to rhino horn before, but cheap mass production has been the stumbling block.

The research team say rhino horn is made of compressed tufts of hair, held together by secretions from the animal. The zoologists in Oxford and Fudan researchers have created a similar looking product out of horse hair, which continues to resemble rhino horn even when it has been cut up.

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