Thieves eye museum rhino horns

The six rhinos displayed at Bern’s Natural History Museum have been given obviously fake wooden horns in a bid to thwart thieves.

This content was published on December 19, 2011 - 15:37 and agencies

The museum said on Monday that it had taken the decision in the light of a series of break-ins across Europe in the last few months where criminals stole horns in order to sell them on the black market.

Rhino horn is in demand in Asia in particular because of a rooted belief that it has medicinal qualities and can aid sexual potency. Depending on size a single horn can fetch between SFr30,000 ($32,000) and SFr250,000, according to the museum. There have even been cases where a horn has gone for half a million francs.

Poaching of wild rhinos has been increasing, and thieves have started to turn their attention to animals in zoos as well.

Most museums have replaced the genuine horns with plaster ones in order to forestall thieves. However, where the replacements look too convincing, thieves have stolen them too, damaging the exhibits in the process.

Christoph Meier, chairman of the Swiss Association of Scientific Taxidermists, told the Swiss News Agency that as far as he knew, the Bern museum was the only one to use obviously false horns.

There are thought to be up to 50 rhino specimens in various collections in Switzerland, although by no means all are accessible to the public.

Meier said taxidermists are coming under pressure from the gangs of horn thieves, who phone them up to find out where the rhinos are and how to visit the collections. He warned owners to be on their guard.

Rhino horn is made of keratine, the same substance as human hair and nails.

As the director of a zoo in Paris put it recently: "If you want to increase your potency, you might as well bite your nails."

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