This week’s brutal killing of a rhinoceros in its enclosure at a French zoo points to a new European frontier for poachers that must be closed as a matter of urgency, environmentalists and officials say.
With skyrocketing demand in Asia for rhino horn to use in “medicine” or as a display of wealth, Europe’s museums, auction houses, antique dealers and taxidermist shops have long been targets as traditional sources dry up.
In many museum exhibits, stuffed rhinos already sport fake horns to discourage thieves.
But in 2011, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, Europol, warned that zoos could also fall prey.
Monday’s killing of Vince the white rhino marked the first time a European zoo had been breached in this way.
Despite a dearth of scientific evidence that it has any curative powers, rhino horn commands astronomical prices of about $60 000 a kilogram — more than gold or cocaine.
The highest price recorded by French conservation nongovernmental organisation Robin des Bois was €100 000 for a kilogram of powdered horn in a private sale in China.
One horn can weigh 4kg. It is comprised exclusively of keratin, the same substance that makes up human hair and fingernails. Demand for the commodity is soaring in Vietnam and China, where it is thought to cure anything from hangovers to cancer.
Wild rhino numbers are plummeting. About 1 400 are killed every year, out of an estimated population of 25 000, mainly in South Africa but also in Asia and India. In the past eight years alone, roughly a quarter of the world population has been massacred in South Africa, which is home to 80% of surviving rhinos.
Today, it may be easier to poach in a European zoo than an African game park, where just about every rhino has its own guard.
There are about 160 rhinos in European zoos — a potential goldmine for horn smugglers.
According to Europol, zoos and other public places with rhino horns on display or in storage must remain on alert for “possible ‘visits’ from persons likely to defraud or attack them to obtain specimens”.
Robin des Bois recommends increasing zoo patrols and giving guards the right to fire warning shots.
It also wants to boost customs procedures and surveillance of postal services to stop the horns, whose sale is illegal everywhere, from ever reaching the Asian market.
Education is also needed to convince possible consumers that rhino horn does not have any of the healing powers it is credited with.
Another worrying development is a rise in the theft of live animals from European zoos in the past 15 years — anything from monkeys to flamingos and penguins, according to Robin des Bois spokesperson Charlotte Nithart.
“If this first blow [to zoo rhinos] is not followed with rigorous security measures, it is certain to be repeated in another zoo in France or in Europe,” she said. — AFP