Scientists Created Fake Rhino Horn. But Should We Use It?

Status depends on rhino horn’s exclusivity, high price and rarity — things that Dr. Vollrath believes his artificial horn could undermine. “We are giving back street entrepreneurs the recipe for how to make fake rhino horns, so hopefully people will get it into the market,” he said.

Rhino horn, as Dr. Vollrath puts it, is “nothing but a tuft of nose hair stuck together with glue that comes out of the animal’s nose glands.” He and his colleagues chose horsehair as a basis for their fake rhino horn because horses are a close relative of rhinos. They cleaned and tightly bundled the hair, then bound it together with a mixture of liquefied silk, which stood in for the collagen found in rhino horn, as well as cellulose, which represented the plant material that gets rubbed in as rhinos sharpen their horns.

Pembient, a Seattle-based bioengineering company launched in 2015, is already exploring the development of 3D-printed rhino horn. Matthew Markus, Pembient’s chief executive officer, said he would be open to testing the new horsehair formula. “Their organic matrix is a neat innovation and definitely brings horsehair horn closer to being a good substitute for rhino horn,” he said.

But his company has also faced pushback from conservationists.

Critics say that fake rhino horn risks stimulating demand for real horn, and that it would complicate policing. “There’s already scarce resources for wildlife crime and we don’t want to make it even more difficult for law enforcement,” said Ms. Swaak-Goldman, who works with governments and law enforcement agencies.

Peter Knights, chief executive officer of WildAid, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending illegal wildlife trade, added that the market in Vietnam is already flooded with convincing fakes, like water buffalo horn, which accounts for up to 90 percent of what’s sold as rhino horn. “It’s widely known that there is a lot of fake product out there, so this experiment is already running,” Mr. Knights said.

Frederick Chen, an economist at Wake Forest University, said that there is more than one way to flood a market, however. “Conservation groups tend to clump different strategies under one roof and have a knee-jerk reaction that they have to reject them all,” he said. “But the dangers they point out don’t apply to all strategies.”