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 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 affluent Chinese looked for ways to diversify their portfolios and hedge against inflation, the art and antiquities market blossomed – as did their sales of pricey rhino horn products. They are viewed in China as “excellent” investments, Gao’s study said.

Reports on robbery of rhino horn pieces from museums illustrate the communication 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 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. Rhino poaching in South Africa, which has the largest rhino population, also rose during that time, though Gao cautioned that it’s not clear whether one trend drove the other.

The sales 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 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.