British zoos put on alert over rising threat of rhino rustlers

Official security warning as animal's horn fetches more than gold on black market

A A A

British zoos have been warned their rhinos may be attacked by poachers because of the soaring value of their horns in the Asian medicine market.

After a rumour that it could cure cancer, the horn is now worth more than $40,000 a kilo, and gangs have been breaking into museums and auction rooms in Britain and Europe to steal trophy rhinoceros heads. The fear is zoos – and live rhinos – may be next.

In an unprecedented alert, all 15 British zoos and wildlife and safari parks which hold rhinos – they have 85 animals between them – have been warned by the National Wildlife Crime Unit to tighten security and report anything suspicious to the police at once.

"We have warned British zoos to be on their guard against the possibility of being targeted by criminals seeking rhino horn," said the head of the unit, Detective Inspector Brian Stuart.

Concern is growing that criminals will try to break into a British zoo at night, kill or tranquillise rhinos, and cut off the horns. The potential profits might be very tempting, as a single big horn could weigh more than 5kg and be worth more than $200,000.

In the past four years rhino poaching has exploded in Africa – South Africa especially – going from a total of 13 animals killed for their horn in South Africa in 2007 to 448 in 2011, the highest number ever recorded. Twelve have already been killed in South Africa this year.

The head of Biaza (the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariaums), Miranda Stevenson, said she was "horrified" at the threat, but that, while security made it difficult to get into zoos, "it isn't impossible. Rhinos are big animals and in good weather most zoos will leave them out at night."

A source from a big zoo in southern England said: "We are aware of the warning but our security is pretty tight. We have keepers living on site and they make night patrols."

Detectives first became aware of the threat to zoos after a man was caught trying to smuggle a rhino horn out of Britain to Asia – which turned out to have come from an animal which had died of natural causes in Colchester Zoo.

Powdered rhino horn has long been used as an ingredient in traditional Asian medicine, where it is reputed to lessen fevers.

However, an urban myth about a senior Vietnamese politician who reputedly had his cancer cured by rhino horn swept across Asia in 2008, even though the politician has never been identified or come forward.

Andrew McVey, Species Programme Manager at WWF-UK, said, "A lot of effort is going into addressing the poaching, but we have not been as successful as we would like to be," he said.

The knock-on effects have involved almost 50 targeted burglaries of museums holding rhino heads in Britain and the Continent.

Last July, burglars broke into Ipswich Museum and sawed the 18in horn off Rosie, the head of an Indian rhino that had been there since 1907.

In February, the mounted head of a black rhino was taken from Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers in Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex, and in May a similar head was taken from the Educational Museum in Haslemere, Surrey.

Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup