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Is all the cost and risk of these criminal activities worth it? Does rhino horn actually work against disease? Studies by pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche and the Zoological Society of London have reported no medicinal value in rhino horn, which, like fingernails, is composed of agglutinated hair and contains proteins like keratin. But many Asians believe thousands of years of traditional medicine lore cannot be wrong. In China, where rhino horn is banned for use in traditional medicine, Zhou Lei of the Chinese Society of Traditional Chinese Medicine says he supports the government policy but adds, "Personally I think it's wasteful to not make use of such precious materials if they come from rhinos that died naturally."
Hanoi resident Nga Do (who does not want her full name used) is suffering from cancer. Doctors recommended rhino horn, so she bought a chunk for $2,000. The source? A friend who accompanied Vietnamese government officials to South Africa. A man who works as head of security for a government institute in Hanoi says he spent $5,000 for a rhino-horn treatment for his liver disease, receiving his cache from someone who worked for a Vietnamese embassy in southern Africa. "If you want it, you can get it easily," says the man, who claims the smoky-tasting liquid produced by mixing rhino-horn powder with water is rejuvenating. Javan rhinos used to be plentiful in Vietnam, but both of these patients had to reach across the world for their remedies. A year ago, what may have been Vietnam's last rhino was killed in a national park. Its horn was hacked off its face.
Breeding Rhinos for Horn
In his dusty living room piled high with scientific journals and outdated computers, Jia Qian slurps down a bowl of noodles before leaving for the Beijing airport. The retired head of the National Traditional Chinese Medicine Strategy Research Project is off to yet another conference in southern China as part of his unorthodox campaign to relegalize rhino horn for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Back in 1993, because of its CITES obligation, China banned rhino horn for medicinal purposes; as recently as last year, the country's official traditional-medicine authority publicly refuted the horn's curative powers. But Jia, 70, believes rhino horn can help cure everything from fevers and brain hemorrhages to SARS and AIDS. "The reason the Chinese government hasn't used rhino horn for these diseases is because some people were Western trained and tainted by Western thought," says Jia. "Other people were weak and gave in to foreign pressure."
Not everyone in China has been infected by Western dogma. From 2006 to 2009, China imported 121 rhinos from South Africa, according to South African data. During that time, China was the only country to purchase more than a handful of the animals for zoological or breeding purposes. Why, exactly? In March 2010, at a CITES meeting in Qatar, Chinese delegate Liu Xiaoping stood up to quash any rumors. China had absolutely no plans to dehorn South African rhinos and deviate from the terms of its import licenses or rescind its ban on using the animal's body parts, Liu said indignantly, according to the testimony of other participants. (Speaking to TIME, Liu now denies having said in Qatar that China had no intention of farming rhinos for their horn and refuses to speak further on the subject.) But shortly after Liu's speech in Qatar, a Chinese research paper surfaced, titled "Proposal for Protection of the Rhinoceros and the Sustainable Use of Rhinoceros Horn." The article, originally published in 2008, referred to a rhino project on China's southern Hainan Island, where "initial progress achieved in research to extract rhinoceros horn from live rhinoceroses merits the attention and support of relevant institutions." The co-author of the report? Senior traditional-medicine researcher Jia, who TIME has learned is part of a secretive, multimillion-dollar Chinese effort to cultivate rhinos for their horn.
Back in 2006, local media in Sanya, Hainan's sun-and-surf town, trumpeted a future tourism hot spot: a safari park called Africa View packed with 50 types of animals, including lions, antelopes and, most of all, rhinoceroses. Two years later, a local newspaper photographer visited. No animals were in evidence, save 60 or so rhinos living in rows of concrete pens, which he photographed. Africa View still has not opened; locals say construction in the park has ceased. An official surnamed Li at the Sanya Tourism Commission, who once toured the park and saw rhinos there, says he has no idea why Africa View hasn't opened yet. "I don't know who the investors are," he told TIME.
The park's parent company, TIME has learned, is called the Hawk Group. Based in Manchuria, in China's northeast, the company oversees an eclectic business portfolio. It is mainly an arms manufacturer. But the company which is headed by Zhang Juyan, a member of China's National People's Congress also dabbles in traditional Chinese medicine through a subsidiary called Longhui. That arm oversees a zoo in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou as well as Hainan's Africa View park.
Though Africa View was sold as a tourism destination to Hainan media, Longhui's website makes the firm's true ambitions clear: "To provide our pharmaceutical raw materials, the company has built an endangered animals breeding station in Sanya, Hainan province. The company has imported a large number of endangered animals, laying a solid foundation for its long-term development." An online business plan states that Longhui aims to produce various rhino-horn products, including 500,000 "rhino horn detox pills," and projects annual sales revenue of $60 million.
Representatives of Hawk, Longhui and the State Forestry Administration all refused to talk to TIME about the Sanya project. Permission for TIME to visit was not given, supposedly because the park is "under renovation." However, Wang Yujia, a media-department representative at the Hangzhou Wild Animal World, which helped facilitate the import of South African rhinos to Hainan, spoke openly. "Rhinos are very precious animals, and their horns are most valuable as medicine," she said, confirming that the project's focus has not been tourism. "Our group runs a pharmaceutical company that makes those drugs. It's all part of the same system."