UK rhino horn heist highlights EU-wide crime trend

LONDON Tue Aug 9, 2011 1:36pm EDT

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Wedged between a woolly mammoth and a giraffe, Rosie the stuffed rhino may seem an unlikely target for crime.

But, like the fate that threatens many of her living relatives, the 100-year-old creature has had her horn stolen in a wave of rhino horn heists that is spreading across Europe.

Thieves broke into the Ipswich Museum in Essex, a southern English county, just after midnight and took off with Rosie's horn and a black rhino skull displayed nearby.

"They wrenched the horn off Rosie - it probably only took them five minutes to take it and leave. They knew exactly what they wanted, and nothing was else was taken," Max Stocker at Ipswich Council told Reuters.

Thefts of rhino horns, highly prized in the Far East for their decorative and purported medicinal purposes, have been reported by museums across Britain and Europe.

Many of the thefts are the work of an organised crime group who are diversifying their activities away from drug trafficking and money laundering to cash in on the high prices the rare commodity can fetch, according to European law enforcement organization, Europol.

"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," Europol said in a statement.

Antique dealers, auction houses, art galleries, museums, private collections and zoos, are among the institutions targeted by the group, who have exploited international auction houses in Britain, France, USA and China to sell the specimens, Europol said.

Depending on the size and quality of the horn, specimens can be worth between 25,000 and 200,000 euros ($284,418), according to Europol.

But for Ipswich Museum, the theft has destroyed a 'much-loved exhibit' which has been on display since 1907, after curators swapped a wild boar for Rosie in an exchange with the London's Natural History Museum.

"It's not about a financial loss for us. We've lost the figurehead of the museum. Our visitors can't believe that the horn has just vanished. It's a topic of conversation for just about every visitor - -everyone asks where us the horn is," said Stocker.

Rhino horns are used in traditional Chinese medicine for the treatment of wide range of maladies, despite the fact that the use of the substance in medicine has been proven ineffective.

However, Rosie's horn could contain a nasty surprise for anyone wanting to use it for medicinal purposes, due to the early preserving methods of the Victorians.

"The horn may well be worthless because of the possible presence of arsenic in the horn. Preservers used a whole cocktail of chemicals to preserve the animals - arsenic may well have been absorbed into the horn during this process," said Stocker. ($1 = 0.703 Euros)

(Edited by Paul Casciato)

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