White Rhino, Black Market

Why old stuffed rhinos now command top dollar

By the time I pulled in at the Super 8 in Moberly, Missouri, the parking lot was thick with muddy trucks. In fact, the young clerk told me, the motel was full—she’d just rented her last room to a lady with a sloth.

“It’s the auction,” the girl said, pointing me in the direction of the closest available bed—some 35 miles south. “We’ve got people in from all over.”

Four times a year, in nearby Macon, Lolli Bros. Livestock Market holds one of the country’s biggest exotic-animal auctions and taxidermy sales. When I arrived last spring, preteen girls roamed the halls with marmosets on their shoulders. Amish families looked sternly on as men in camouflage jackets vied for zebras and Bactrian camels. Nearby, a blond woman in a sweatshirt bottle-nursed a baby orangutan wearing a diaper, while a white buffalo calf wandered past a stuffed polar bear.

But what turned out to be one of the auction’s most valuable objects was also one of its smallest, residing behind a glass case in the taxidermy room: a 24-pound pair of horns that once belonged to a white rhinoceros.

Long prized as an ingredient for traditional medicine in Asia, rhino horn is in big demand these days. China’s surging economy has created a class of consumer willing to spend top yuan for these lumps of keratin—the same stuff that makes up human hair and nails—purported to treat everything from fevers and gout to high blood pressure and rheumatism. The Vietnamese market has become similarly overheated, fanned by tales like the one about a senior politician whose rhino-horn treatments cured him of liver cancer. In 2008, a Vietnamese official was caught by a film crew apparently buying illegally obtained rhino horn outside Vietnam’s Embassy in South Africa, where last year conservationists recorded more than 330 illicit rhino deaths. That’s a nearly threefold increase over 2009. South Africa has responded by stepping up its enforcement efforts, arresting some 123 suspected poachers in the first half of this year and killing an estimated 20 more.

But increased enforcement and increased demand have conspired to create a robust, if largely illegal, market in taxidermy rhino-horn trophies. Horns now fetch two to three times their expected price at auction in Europe and the United States, and a rash of rhino-horn thefts has occurred at European auction houses and museums. British authorities have responded by prohibiting the sale of rhino horns that are not works of art (carvings, etc.). And last year, the European Taxidermy Federation warned its members against selling to buyers interested only in rhino horn, saying such a transaction “stinks of illegal activity.”

“What you’re seeing is criminal gangs trying to go around and buy up these horns to smuggle them out of the U.S. and into China and Vietnam,” said Crawford Allan, the North American director of Traffic, a wildlife-trade monitoring program. The U.S. regulates the import, export, and commercial sale of most rhino horns, and selling any horn for human consumption is prohibited. Jim Lolli, who runs the auction house with his brothers, told me that the people who come to his auctions are rarely the actual purchasers of rhino horn. “It’s all foreign money. These peons that come here is nothing. They’re buying for somebody—I’m sure,” said Lolli, who demands an affidavit from sellers, but worries that the exorbitant prices are creating a black market. “The Orientals will buy them, but it’s illegal to export them, so you’ve really got to watch what you’re doing. I don’t know what they do with them.”

The crowd at Lolli Bros. swelled as the auctioneers hoisted the hefty, thorn-shaped fore horn and its squat mate onto the counter. When bidding began, however, the Carhartts-and-camo crowd quieted down, as three groups of Asians, lurking on the sale’s perimeter, drove the price up from the low tens of thousands. Once the bid passed the $100,000 mark, buyers in the room began to peel off. One group held on for another $20,000, but lost its nerve when a phone buyer dug deep, ultimately winning the pair of horns with a final bid of $125,000. This raw display of capital seemed to set the room on edge. “Why would anyone spend that much on a rhino horn?” one bystander asked an Asian man dressed in black jeans and carrying a leather laptop satchel. His group had kept pace until the action hit six figures. “I don’t know,” he said, rather unconvincingly, before quickly rejoining his party.