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.