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Too Hot for Museums to Handle: Rhino Horns

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 22, 2011

Gallery of anatomy in the National Museum of Natural History, Paris. iStock.

This report comes from  Rebecca Atkinson at Museums Journal:
Organised criminal gangs targeting museums as value of rhino horn soars

Museums have been urged to remove all rhino horn from display amid fears that burglars are targeting museums in search of this valuable material.

The warning came after a rhino head was stolen in a burglary at Haslemere Educational Museum, Surrey, at the end of May.

The commercial value of rhino horn has soared recently largely because the Chinese market uses it in traditional medicines as a cure for cancer. It is also highly prized in Yemen, where it is used for dagger handles.

Detective constable Dave Pellatt of Surrey Police, who is investigating the crime, said the museum is believed to have been deliberately targeted. “There have been similar thefts reported elsewhere in Europe where the animal heads have later been found minus the horns, which have been sold on to be used in alternative medicines,” he added.

Haslemere Museum has removed its remaining rhino heads from the premises following the theft, and its website states it will no longer store rhino material. The Horniman Museum in London has also removed all rhino horn from display until it can reassess its security arrangements.

Paolo Viscardi, the natural history curator at the Horniman Museum and a committee member at the Natural Science Collections Association (NatSCA), said there were rumours that some museums have raised the possibility of destroying rhino material in order to eliminate the risk of burglary.

The national parks in South Africa lock up rhino material rather than destroy it, and museums should do the same,” he added. “Museums should also temporarily remove references to rhino horn collections from online collection databases as it makes it easy for these organised criminal gangs to find.”

Viscardi believes that more thefts in the UK are inevitable: “The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better – at least no one has been hurt yet, but given the lengths to which poachers will go to in order to acquire rhino horn I expect it’s just a matter of time.”

Most museums in the UK hold some examples of rhino horn in their collections, from mounted heads to horn cups and dagger handles, but in the past these items have not necessarily required high levels of security.

NatSCA has produced some guidelines for museums concerned about rhino horn, which can be found on its website (www.natsca.info). It recommends that museums concerned about security levels should consider disposing of material either by loan or permanently to another museum willing to take it on.

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