White Rhino grazing at Monate Lodge

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Rhinos Latest Victims of the Illicit Trade in Art and Wildlife

In past months, institutions in Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and the United Kingdom have all suffered thefts, sometimes by armed robbers. The Metropolitan Police Service --- more commonly known by the location of its original headquarters at Scotland Yard --- has blamed the raids on an Irish organized criminal gang,
and cautioned that the group may strike again. "This is not Hollywood, where museum heists are glamorous, and even harmless. These crimes threaten a species with extinction
and endanger the public.

We are all victims," said Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation. Until the perpetrators are apprehended, the police are advising museums to remove all rhino horns from display. Such an unprecedented advisory demonstrates the severity of the risk, even far away in the United States.

“We’re very concerned about these thieves operating in the U.S. --- first and foremost because it shows the tremendous demand that exists for wildlife products such as rhino horn and elephant ivory --- and also because we frequently display public exhibitions of wildlife trade as an educational tool. These exhibits could conceivably become targets for the thieves,” said Kelvin Alie, Director of IFAW’s Prevention in Illegal Wildlife Trade Program. Indeed, the criminals know no borders, as the robberies of museums in Europe are closely
connected to the slaughter of rhinos in Asia and Africa.

“In the last three years, 800 African rhinos have been killed and experts agree that we are facing the worst rhino poaching crisis in decades,” said Lucy Boddam-Whetham, Acting Director of Save the Rhino International.
According to Rhishja Larson, Founder of Saving Rhinos, “In South Africa alone, nearly 200
rhinos were killed between January and July of this year. Comparatively, 125 rhinos were
killed during the same time period in 2010.”
With the number of rhinos in the wild plummeting, the illicit trade is hunting horns elsewhere. The European Taxidermy Foundation (ETF) has alerted its members that smugglers posing as collectors are attempting to buy horns. Antique horns from old “trophy” collections have also sold for record prices at auction, presumably for use in pseudomedicine, which prompted the U.K. to completely ban their export. And as recent events demonstrate, traffickers have now turned to theft from private and public collections, where rhino horns have long been treasured for their artistic, historical, and scientific value.

Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation

Washington, DC, 20 July 2011 --- Following a recent surge in museum heists targeting
rhinoceros horn, conservation and preservation organizations warn that the illegal trafficking
of art and wildlife is a threat to the public, as well as the world’s natural and cultural
The Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation (LCCHP), the International Fund
for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Save the Rhino International, and Saving Rhinos issued the
following statement:
   “Across Europe, thieves are targeting museums to steal antique rhino horns. These crimes obviously have grave implications for museum collections and visitors, as well as the Earth’s rhinos, who are being slaughtered to near extinction to fuel the demand for their horns on the black market. These thefts speak to the value of products derived from wildlife and the lengths to which people will go to profit from their illicit trade. Rhino horns are still a prized traditional remedy in East Asia, despite repeated scientific studies proving that they have no medicinal benefit, and recent warnings that they may actually harm human health. With a great demand for such items, they are being pilfered at an alarming rate. Just last week, law enforcement agencies linked the thefts to an Irish organized crime group, which is also involved in drug trafficking, money laundering, and the piracy of counterfeit goods.
Rhinos are an important part of our natural and cultural heritage. It is extremely vital that the international community --- especially those countries where the demand for rhino horn is greatest --- enforce existing laws and treaties to protect the species. Additionally, we urge the public to stop buying rhino horns, and all other illicit art and wildlife products. The trafficking of these species will only end when the demand does --- or when the supply runs out --- whichever happens first. For the sake of the rhinos, and all of us, we hope that it will not be the latter.”

Rhino head stolen from museum

"For 80 years we took care of it and from one day to the next it's no longer there," said Georges Lenglet, vertebrate exhibit curator at the Brussels museum, who has little hope of seeing the head again.
The museum had never been robbed until the July heist, when it became the latest of a rising number of science museums in Europe targeted by thieves for rhino horns, which can fetch tens of thousands of euros on the black market.
"It's a nasty little piece of criminal activity," Patrick Byrne, head of the organised crime networks unit at the European police agency Europol, told AFP.
Europol suspects an Irish organised crime group is behind a spate of robberies that has hit not only museums but also zoos, auction houses, antique dealers and private collectors across the continent over the past 18 months.
The gang, known to use violence and intimidation, is involved in drug trafficking, money laundering and smuggling of counterfeit products, but has seized too on a lucrative niche market in the sale of rhino horns. Scotland Yard says the spike in museum thefts is driven by a significant increase in the value of rhino horns in Asia. Depending on its size, a horn can sell for 25 000 to 200 000 euros, according to Europol. The horns are usually ground into powder and end up in the Asian market where they are prized for purported medicinal virtues to cure fevers, headaches, typhoid and smallpox. Their use for impotence is merely a myth.

The emergence of museum horn thefts coincides with an alarming surge in poaching of live rhinos in Africa. More than 200 rhinos have been killed so far in 2011, after 333 were slaughtered in 2010, up from 122 in 2009, 83 in 2008, 13 in 2007, according to Save the Rhino International, a London-based conservation group. Lucy Boddam-Whetham, Save the Rhino's acting director, fears the robberies will only exacerbate the illegal trade.
"It's stimulating more demand and stimulating the market, not taking pressure away from live rhinos," she told AFP.
Robberies have been reported by museums in Portugal, France, Germany, Britain, the Czech Republic and as far north as Sweden. According to Scotland Yard, 20 thefts have taken place across Europe in just the past six months. They have prompted curators to beef up security systems or even remove rhinos from display. The Brussels Royal Institute for Natural Sciences Museum did both after the black rhino head, which dated from 1827, was stolen just three weeks after a similar heist failed in the Belgian southern city of Liege.

"It's quite sad," said white-haired, bespectacled Lenglet in front of a display window now featuring two whole rhinos instead of three, and one head rather than two, after the museum locked away its most precious specimens.

The gang had clearly done its homework. While one man distracted the guard by asking for information, two others picked the lock to the display door. By using the restroom window, the gang found a quick way to get the piece out without going through the front door. The suspected Irish gang has used both crude "smash and grab" techniques and violence to snatch rhino heads, or more sophisticated burglaries based on meticulous surveillance and reconnaissance work, Europol's Byrne said.

"These people are indiscriminate in their criminal methods," he said. The rhino heads are quickly sold on the black market, and the gang launders the cash by purchasing real estate or other assets such as high-powered cars.

Museums are not the only places that have raised their guard. Earlier this year, Britain widened a ban on the sale of rhino trophies, removing the right to sell those that dated before 1947, after an unusual increase in their price at auction houses in Europe. Even taxidermists are on the lookout for suspicious activities. The European Taxidermy Federation (ETF) sent out a letter to its members in early July warning them that Danish and Swedish taxidermists had been contacted by suspicious buyers claiming to be from Ireland or Britain. The callers never say who they are and call from unregistered mobile phones, the federation's president, Vagn Reitz, wrote in the July 7 letter.

"All this stinks of illegal activity," Reitz wrote, "so it is a very good idea not to get involved if you are not 100 percent sure the trade is legal."

Laurent Thomet

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