Unicorns first appeared in Chinese texts as early as 2697BC, revered for their mystical, magical and — crucially — mythological powers. Because their horn was believed to be able to detect poison, goblets supposedly made of the precious material were popular gifts for emperors and kings. Impressive, except for one crucial detail: unicorns do not exist. The word in English derives from the Latin unicornis, or “single horn”. It is the rhinoceros’s bad evolutionary luck that its horn became mixed up in unicorn lore and the species has been hunted to the edge of extinction. Rhino horn is at the heart of the multibillion-dollar wildlife trade, the subject of Rachel Love Nuwer’s meticulous and ambitious study of one of the most dangerous businesses on earth — for both man and beast. Nuwer’s net is necessarily wide, drawing in species from rhinos, to wildcats, to bears harvested for bile, to rare reptiles captured by ravenous collectors. The statistics can be numbing: from 2007 to 2014, 30...

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