British zoos have been warned their rhinos may be poached because of the soaring value of Rhino horn in the traditional Asian medicine market.
After rumours it could cure cancer, the horn is now worth more than $40,000 (£25,000) a kilo, and gangs have been breaking into museums and auction rooms in Britain and Europe to steal antique rhinoceros heads.
The fear is zoos 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.
"We have warned British zoos to be on their guard against... being targeted by criminals seeking rhino horn because of its current very high value in the Asian market," said unit head, 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.
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 zoo in southern England said: "We are aware of the warning... We have keepers living on site and they make night patrols."
Detectives first became aware of the threat after a man was caught trying to smuggle a rhino horn to Asia – which came from an animal that died of natural causes in Colchester Zoo.
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."Reuse content