Since the start of the current war on rhinos, in 2006, journalists and wildlife trafficking experts alike have treated the trade as a product of Asia’s new-found wealth combined with old-style traditional medicine: Rich buyers pay astounding sums for rhino horn in the belief that it will cure cancer or a host of other ills.
This reporting often comes with an undertone of bafflement or even thinly veiled condescension. Buyers, mainly in China and Vietnam, appear to be so naive that they ignore the total absence of scientific support for the medicinal value of rhino horn and put their faith instead in a substance that is the biochemical equivalent of a fingernail.
But a new paper in the journal Biological Conservation raises a startling alternative theory. Rhinos are dying by the hundreds for what may be in essence an investment bubble, like tulips in 17th-century Holland or real estate in 1920s Florida.
“Rhino horn pieces are portrayed in the Chinese media,” Gao and his coauthors write, “as an excellent investment opportunity whose value is tied more to the rarity of the raw materials rather than the artistic nature of the item. The aggressive media attention has played a signiﬁcant role in the growth of the art market.” Press reporting about outlier items—those sold for astronomically high prices—“drives the perception that collecting rhino horn is highly proﬁtable and inﬂuences black market prices.”