Rhino skull at the gallery of anatomy in the National Museum of Natural History, Paris. iStock.

Twenty thefts of rhino horn in six months

Rebecca Atkinson, 10.08.2011
Ipswich Museum latest victim in a spate of thefts
The recent spate of thefts of rhino horn from museums and auction houses across Europe is believed to be the work of just one Irish criminal gang, according to law enforcement agency Europol.

At the end of July, thieves broke into Ipswich Museum and hacked off a rhino horn from a stuffed exhibit and a separate rhinoceros skull on display. Earlier in the month, the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences in Liège, Belgium, also fell victim, with burglars stealing a stuffed rhino head.

The Metropolitan Police said it was aware of about 20 thefts of rhino horn across the UK and Europe over the past six months, including break-ins at Haslemere Educational Museum, Surrey, at the end of May, and Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers, Essex, in February.

Europol, which has a responsibility to monitor organised crime and terrorism across Europe, said it had gathered evidence identifying an organised crime group illegally trading stolen rhino horn, which is also involved in a variety of other serious crimes, including drugs trafficking.

In a statement, the crime agency said: “Significant players within this area of crime have been identified as an Irish and ethnically-Irish organised criminal group, who are known to use intimidation and violence to achieve their ends."

According to the Metropolitan Police, the gang is targeting premises after conducting research and “hostile reconnaissance”. They have been known to use force when challenged.

Detective constable Ian Lawson, from the Metropolitan Police Service’s Art and Antiques Unit, said that museums should review their security arrangements, remove rhino horns from display and inform the public that items had been removed.

Paolo Viscardi, the natural history curator at the Horniman Museum, said that while loose rhino horn specimens are easy to remove from display, heavy mounted heads were harder to remove, especially for smaller museums without sufficient storage facilities.

One option could be for museum conservators to temporarily remove horns from taxidermy displays and replace them with artificial casts. Viscardi said: “This isn’t an easy solution – it’s expensive and I’m sure lots of people won’t agree with it – but museums have to be as vigilant as possible against this ongoing problem.”

The latest spate of offences comes on the back of the rising commercial value of rhino horn, which is used in traditional medicines as a cure for cancer in China and other Asian countries.

Rhino horn can be worth between €25,000 and €200,000 depending on the size and quality of the specimen.

But Viscardi said that arsenic and other toxic chemicals were traditionally used in taxidermy – meaning the horns may still contain the poison and could be harmful when consumed.

RHINO HORN GUIDELINES

The Natural Science Collections Association (NatSCA) has produced some guidelines for museums concerned about rhino horn, which can be found on its website www.natsca.info.

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