Museums Thefts United Kingdom

Thieves target rhino horn

Medically useless, it’s still worth more than gold

“The theft of rhino horn shows how organised criminals are always on the look out for new and creative opportunities,” says Europol

Powdered rhino horn, which is widely regarded as a medicine in the Far East, is now more valuable by weight than gold—although the horn has no therapeutic benefit. One consequence of its rise in price has been a spate of thefts, mostly from museums. Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, believes there have been over 100 thefts worldwide since 2011.

The latest theft was at the National Museum of Ireland, where four animal heads were stolen from the museum’s stores in Swords, on the northern outskirts of Dublin. Early last year, the specimens had been taken off display at the museum’s natural history building as a security precaution. On 17 April, a guard at the store was overpowered and tied up by masked raiders. A museum spokesman says the eight stolen horns have “a street value” of €500,000.

The Dublin theft came less than two weeks after thieves seized 66 rhino horns, worth $2.75m, from a private game reserve in South Africa. The horns had been removed from living rhinos and stored in a safe to protect the animals from poachers.

The increase in rhino thefts, and the latest Irish seizure, has serious implications for institutions and collectors, not just museums with natural history displays. Despite security warnings and resulting precautions, thefts have continued. And now the threat of violence is being used. Europol, which is based in The Hague in the Netherlands, has been monitoring rhino thefts since January 2011. Until November 2012, they had recorded 67 European thefts (see below), plus 15 attempts. Worst hit were Germany (15 thefts), France (11), the UK (8), Spain (6) and Italy (5). A Europol spokesman says that “based on our data for Europe, there must have been over a hundred rhino thefts worldwide since 2011”.

After the first round of thefts in 2011, Europol issued a “threat notice” to its national members. “The theft of rhino horn shows how organised criminals are always on the look out for new and creative opportunities,” it said. The warning pinpointed “an Irish and ethnically-Irish organised criminal group, who are known to use intimidation and violence”. Europol believes some of the suspects are travellers, originating from County Limerick.

Organised crime

Europol says the gang is targeting “antique dealers, auction houses, art galleries, museums, private collections and zoos”—and it is also active in North America. So far, however, rhino thefts have not yet become such a serious problem for US museums.

Operation Oakleaf was set up by 16 European and a number of other police forces to tackle the criminals. Intelligence has revealed that they are also engaged in counterfeiting and drugs trafficking. The police believe the thieves have established a network of companies across Europe to launder their proceeds.

It is unclear whether this group was behind the latest theft. But if Ireland’s own national museum can be targeted, then no collection seems safe from the rhino thieves.

Europol's map of rhino horn thefts in Europe since 2011
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