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September 13, 2011

Museums Targeted as Rhino Horn Demand Soars

Humane Society International

  • A rhino in Nepal happily grazing in the sun. Andrew Ilyasov/iStockphoto

  • Help came too late for these two rhinos, poached for their horns. ZWF/D. Savides

The number of thefts of rhino horn exhibits from museums and private premises has increased dramatically over the last three years.

Between April 2008 and August 2011, at least 41 rhino horns, some dating back to the 19th century, have been stolen from displays in Europe, South Africa and the United States.

As the price of rhino horn has escalated, the illegal trade has expanded to include many countries around the globe, leading the European law enforcement agency Europol to state recently that it had uncovered a European organized crime syndicate behind many of the thefts.

Just some of the incidents reported since April 2008 (a full report can be downloaded here [PDF]):

  • Two 19th century white rhino horns were stolen from Cape Town’s national Iziko Musuem, South Africa.
  • In the UK, an auctioneer pled guilty to stealing a rhino horn from a client.
  • A rhino horn was stolen from Allwetterzoo Muenster Zoo, Germany.
  • One 19th century rhino horn was stolen from the Museum of Natural History in Rouen, France.
  • Two 18th century rhino horns were taken from a university Science Museum, Portugal.
  • An attempt was made to steal a rhino head from Liège Natural History Museum.
  • The entire upper jaw of a rhino, with two horns attached, was taken from Hamburg Zoological Museum, Germany. Four further horns were also taken.
  • Three rhino horns were stolen from the Museum of Natural History in Florence, Italy.
  • A rhino head was stolen from Museum of Natural Sciences in Brussels, Belgium.
  • One rhino horn was stolen from the Museum of Natural History in Gothenburg, Sweden.
  • A rhino horn dating from 1935 was stolen from the African Museum at I’île d’Aix, France.
  • A Victorian rhino exhibit was stolen from Ipswich Museum, Norfolk, UK.
  • Three rhino horns were stolen from the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
  • A black rhino exhibit was stolen from Drusilla’s Zoo, in East Sussex, UK.
  • Rhino horns dating back to 1898 and originating from Africa and Asia were stolen from a castle in the Czech Republic.

Not all thefts have been so successful for the perpetrators. After hearing of the recent wave of crimes across Europe, forward-thinking staff at the Natural History Museum in the Hertfordshire town of Tring in the UK replaced the real horns of its rhino exhibits with replicas. Several months later, thieves struck and made off with three fake rhino horns.

In July 2011, Europol announced that it had uncovered an Irish organized crime group illegally trading rhino horn. The group was reported to have targeted antique dealers, art galleries, museums, private collections and zoos, and exploited auction houses in the UK, France, USA and China. The same group, which has been active in North and Latin America, South Africa, China and Australia, was reported to be involved in other serious crime across the EU such as drug-trafficking, organized robbery, distribution of counterfeit products and money-laundering.

Read HSI’s report [PDF] detailing rhino horn thefts and illegal trade from April 2008 to August 2011.