If it’s true that stupid is as stupid does, then perhaps one of the more effective ways to combat rhino poaching might be by conning the con.
If someone is stupid enough to believe rhino horn — made of keratin, the same protein substance found in human hair and fingernails — cures cancer and gives one a bigger horn, then how would that person know the difference between genuine rhino horn and some cheap Asian knock-off?
That’s the idea behind a novel idea devised by zoologists at the University of Oxford, working together with molecular biologists from Fudan University in Shanghai, China — institutions-of-higher-learning that do not, as a rule, cater to the stupids out there.
Scientists at the two universities have found a way to create artificial rhino horn from horse hair, in such a way that — and I quote — “is confusingly similar to real rhino horn.”
The idea is to flood the black market with fake horn and drive the price down on a product that is, for all intents and purposes, worthless, no matter how exorbitantly priced it may be.
“We bundled together tail hairs of the rhino’s ubiquitous near relative, the horse,,” the researchers wrote in a paper published Friday in the journal Scientific Reports, “to be glued together with a bespoke matrix of regenerated silk mimicking the collagenous component of the real horn.”
If you’re wondering — and who isn’t — how the idea caught on in the first place that rhino horn is a powerful aphrodisiac, Oxford researchers have proved that much of the ground rhino horn in Asia is mixed with ground-up Viagra. It’s remarkable what one can learn by using a simple electron microscope.
Rhino poachers have decimated populations of wild rhinos around the world to supply demand on the black market.
Horse hair is an ideal material from which to make fakes, it turns out: The fake horn can be shaped and polished to pass for the real thing, especially as horse keratin is virtually indistinguishable from that found in horses.
The researchers aren’t just smart: They’re realistic. Scientific Reports is about the science; the researchers leave the interpretation to others. They suggest the fake horn can be used to flood the underground market, driving down prices and discouraging poaching, but they don’t take a stance on whether the idea is good or bad.
“Whether flooding the market with confusing horn copies will ultimately lead to saving rhinos . . . in the wild remains to be seen,” they wrote.
That will ultimately be left to conservation economists to decide.
Some conservation groups — Save the Rhino International and the International Rhino Foundation, to name just two, have argued in the past that the manufacture, marketing and sale of fake rhino horn could have the unintended effect of boosting demand for the real thing, which in turn could have a reverse effect on poaching.
The science is in, however: The new horn substitute is inexpensive to make and virtually indistinguishable from the genuine item, even for a stupid who learns how to use an electron microscope. Simple PSYOPs.