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Scientists hope fake rhino horn can help save nearly-extinct animal

Women protecting rhinos from poachers

Demand for rhino horns, which sell for exorbitant prices, has nearly driven the species to extinction. Poachers in South Africa alone are causing the wild animals to disappear at a rate of three a day. But now, a group of researchers have shown that a potential solution — making convincing rhino horn replicas to sell instead — may be scientifically possible. 

"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," the scientists wrote in an article published Friday in Scientific Reports.

Currently, the animals are targeted for their horns, which sell for exorbitant prices in countries like Vietnam and China, where they are ground into powder and used in folk medicine.

There have been many plans put forward to save the rhino, but these scientists are hoping that their artificial horns could trick consumers into "buying it in replacement or indeed in preference to the real, and extremely expensive, rhino horn," according to the study.

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Images of cross-section of a real rhino horn (A,C) and an artificial horn (B,D).  Scientific Reports

The horn of a rhinoceros is made out of hair, which is densely glued together on the nose of the mammal. To replicate this, the team used hair from a horse, as the species is a close relative. The "glue" was a "bespoke matrix of regenerated silk" which mimicked the collagen in a real horn. The result was a near match in overall appearance, and the team said that it is "surprisingly similar" in its visual external and internal micro-structure.

"On the microscopic level our Light and Scanning-Electron Microscopy confirmed that not only the gross morphology and anatomy of the faux horn but also the more detailed fine structure was similar to those of real rhino horn," the authors wrote. 

Though a promising development in the fight against rhino poachers, the scientists also said that it "remains to be seen" whether flooding the market with fake horns will ultimately lead to saving wild rhinos.

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