• Alternatives to rhino horn are being created to undermine illegal trade
  • Conservationists have voiced concerns that disrupting the market won’t help
  • Nearly 9,000 rhinos in Africa killed by poachers in 2006-2015

Some people believe it can fight infection, treat cancer, and cure hangovers. But there is no scientific basis for the use of rhinoceros horn in medicine.

Despite this, its use an ingredient in traditional medicine has contributed to years of poaching and illegal trade; primarily to the Asian market. Between 2006-2015, 220 kilogrammes of rhino horn were seized en route to Vietnam. Within that period, nearly 9,000 rhinos across Africa have been killed by poachers.

In an effort to disrupt the market and protect the global rhino population, scientists and campaigners have introduced alternatives to rhino horn that they hope will undermine demand and devalue it as a commodity. Here are three examples.

1. Nail trimmings

Swedish wildlife photographer Bjorn Persson has been collecting fingernails. Human nails are made of keratin – the same substance as rhino horn – and Persson intends to use the materials that he has gathered to replicate the medicine that’s popular in Asia.

Persson, who regularly photographs wild rhinos in Africa, says he already has thousands of dollars’ worth of keratin to produce the medicine.

"We're asking people to donate their nails, and we're going to make a medicine [to] sell to China and Vietnam as a substitute," he says.

Between 2006-2015, 220 kg of illegal rhino horn was seized en route to Vietnam.
Between 2006-2015, 220 kg of illegal rhino horn was seized en route to Vietnam.
Image: Statista

2. Horse hair

Scientists from the University of Oxford and Fudan University in Shanghai have come up with a way to create fake rhino horn using horse hair. Since rhino horns are made up of tightly packed hair, it has a similar composition when glued together.

Professor Fritz Vollrath, from the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology, says: ‘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.”

The researchers hope that their discovery will not only undermine the trade in rhino horn by eventually flooding and confusing the market with credible fakes, but also find new uses as an innovative bio-material.

Alternatives to rhino horn are intended to disrupt poaching and illegal trade.
Two rhinos are poached in Africa every day
Image: Reuters/Jean Bizimana

3. 3D printing

A start-up in Seattle has trialled its own mock rhino horn, created with a 3D printer. Biotech firm Pembient’s horn alternatives are made in a lab, and are genetically identical to real ones on the "macroscopic, microscopic, and molecular" level, according to CEO and cofounder Matthew Markus.

By pushing fabricated horns into the supply chain at various points, he says, people won't know whether they're buying real rhino horns or fake ones.

But will it work?

Rhino conservation organizations are unconvinced by such efforts, suggesting that flooding the market with inexpensive copies will only drive up demand for the genuine article.

Research shows that despite fake horns already being on the market, an average of two rhinos are still poached in Africa every day.

And yet Persson and those like him are determined to continue their efforts.

“We need to create a debate in the world,” he says. “We need to spread awareness about what is going on, because these rhinos, they are killed for nothing. It's a meaningless extinction."