A daytime bonfire was staged Thursday at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Its kindling: Illegal items made of rhinoceros horn that had been confiscated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The event — which destroyed whole horns, ornaments and products advertised as medicinals, together worth $1 million on the black market — was meant to draw attention to the scourge of rhino poaching, which is happening at such an intense rate that experts say the animals could become extinct in 15 years. Just 5,000 black rhinos and 20,000 white rhinos remain in the wild in Africa, where illegal hunters slaughter them for their horns.

In a statement, Fish and Wildlife explained the demand for rhino horn like this: “Supposed remedies, which range from cancer treatments to hangover cures, are driving unprecedented poaching. In addition, objects made of rhino horn have more recently become status symbols to display success and wealth.”

The statement relies on a widely cited belief — that rhino horn is plundered mostly for its use in traditional Asian medicines. But that isn’t correct, said Yufang Gao, a doctoral student in anthropology at Yale University, at least not in his native China, a major rhino horn market.

In China, as Gao and fellow researchers recently reported in the journal Biological Conservation, the market is driven by interest in art and antiques purchased not as status symbols but as investment pieces. The difference might seem minor. But it reflects a disconnect that Gao said is rooted in cultural barriers and miscommunication — and could be an important obstacle to ending the illegal trade and poaching.

“Right now, most of the conservation communication programs only focus on the medicinal value of rhino horn,” he said. “It’s important to consider the art and antique market as a separate trade, and target the people who buy rhino horn because of its collectible and investment value,” as well as auction houses.

Gao said it is certainly true that many Chinese believe rhino horns — which are made of keratin, like fingernails — have healing powers, though there is no scientific proof that they do. Rhinoceroses roamed ancient China, and their horns were used to treat fevers, heart disease and other woes.  Those beliefs haven’t died, but the government has more closely regulated the traditional medicine market since banning rhino horn trade in 1993, Gao said.

In recent years, however, as the growing number of middle-class and affluent Chinese looked for ways to diversify their portfolios and hedge against inflation, the art and antiquities market blossomed — as did their sales of very pricey rhino horn products. They are viewed in China as “excellent” investments with an intrinsic value rooted in the rarity of their material, Gao’s study said.

But you wouldn’t know that from reading Western newspapers, which is what Gao and his colleagues did. They compared 166 articles on the Chinese rhino horn market that were published from 2000 to 2014 in American and British sources — including The Washington Post — with 332 Chinese news articles from the same period. As shown in the chart below, 75 percent of the Chinese articles reported on rhino horn’s investment value, and just 29 percent reported on its medicinal value. On the other hand, 84 percent of Western articles mentioned its medicinal value, and only 6 percent its investment value.

Reports on robbery of rhino horn pieces from museums illustrate the discrepancy, Gao said. A 2011 Guardian article on “an epidemic of UK rhino horn thefts,” for example, attributed it to a demand for powdered rhino horn used in “traditional Chinese medicine.”

“No Chinese would grind the rhino horn antique,” Gao said. “They preserve it, they put it in their house as a collectible, or give it as a gift to someone.”

Gao also examined rhino horn art sales at Chinese auctions from 1995 to 2011. They grew dramatically, from 26 in 2000 to nearly 2,700 in 2011, and they were expensive: One carved cup sold for close to $428,000. As seen in this chart, rhino poaching in South Africa, which has the largest rhino population and biggest poaching problem, also rose during that time, though Gao cautioned that it’s not clear whether one trend drove the other.

The sales, however, plummeted in 2012, shortly after the Chinese government re-emphasized its ban on rhino horn trade. But rhino horn remains valuable, he said, and it’s possible that the sales have simply moved to the black market or to Vietnam, another huge buyer. But Gao has news for buyers: In real terms, the price of auctioned items didn’t increase over the period he studied.

“So rhino horn is not actually a good investment economically or ecologically,” he said.

This isn’t the first time Gao has identified a gap between Chinese and Western understanding of a conservation problem. He’s also studied the ivory trade, which he says is commonly misattributed by English-language reporters to purchases made by China’s rising middle class, when the demand is far broader than that.

Here’s the good news, Gao says: Tackling the problem of ivory and rhino horn sold as art or ornaments isn’t insurmountable. Like current Chinese interest in rosewood or some teas as investments, those are fads, he said. Getting people to abandon belief in rhino horn’s curative powers will be harder.

“It’s still very deeply rooted in the culture,” he said.

Gao said he’s dedicated to helping Chinese and Westerners — neither of whose information is wrong, just incomplete — understand each other for the sake of conservation. He referred to the parable of the blind men who touched an elephant: One felt the ear and believed it was a fan, one touched the tail and thought it was a rope, and so on. None got the whole idea.

“What I try to do is use my identity as a Chinese who is able to see the different kinds of opinions and perceptions, and bring all these things together and try to see a more comprehensive picture of the problem,” he said, adding that he’s helped Chinese journalists report on the issue in Africa and hosted African conservationists in China. “I have been trying to bridge the gap.”

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