By Rebecca Benest
Staff Writer

On April 18, Irish police found four rhino heads missing from a museum in Dublin. Although this may seem to be an obscure crime, the heads, when sold on the black market, are estimated to sell for $650,000 all together.

The rhino heads are not going to be used as a wall ornament. Instead, they will be harvested for their horns, which, in all likelihood, are going to be powdered-down and sold for their alleged healing properties. This type of crime has become increasing popular throughout the UK, with a large swell in robberies having occurred in 2011. Police have yet to make any arrests, but many link the crime back to a group of Irish travelers.

This incident is more than a museum robbery—rather, it is part of the reason for why rhinos are becoming endangered along with other commonly harvested animals, such as elephants. Beneath the surface of a successful museum heist lies a much larger-scale trade ring fueled by the large demand for illegal powdered horn destined for alternative Asian folk medicines markets.

The four missing heads are the most recent in a long line of similar robberies. In August 2011, “Rosie the Rhinoceros” was taken from Ipswich Museum in England. Rosie was only the most famous victim of the several similar incidents around that time, which, according to the European Police Office (Europol), all lead back to the same Irish traveller gang.

The robbery last week was different, however, which makes the situation all the more ironic. The National Museum of Ireland, which held the rhinos, were worried about the demand for the horns—and because of that, decided over a year ago to take the rhinos off of their original display and keep them in the less secure storage area. The lower levels of security in the storage spaces might have been a contributing factor to the success of the robbery.

The Irish travellers, also called the Pavee, or Gypsies, are largely accused for more than just taxidermist horn-napping. EUROPOL claims they are also heavily involved in drug trafficking, money laundering and other such crimes. They are also said to have a wide presence throughout South Africa, China, Australia, and much of the rest of the world . Nevertheless, nothing has been proven against them, and Martin Collins, a representative for the travellers at Pavee Point, insists there is no evidence. “I would suggest here that it’s downright irresponsible for Europol or anyone else to make these kinds of statements, unless they can be substantiated,” he said.

Collins’ statement is not unfounded, as police have previously jumped to conclusions in accusing the travellers of various crimes. They are subject to a wide array of prejudice and discrimination throughout Ireland and the rest of Europe, inciting further racial hatred of the group.

Personally, I am most intrigued by the question of the horns themselves: are their medical properties legitimate, or only an unfounded claim resulting in the potential extinction of an entire species? Although the powder is probably most often heard of for its use as an aphrodisiac, in reality, it is used for a variety of purposes. Meanwhile folk medicine very clearly does not include aphrodisiacal properties in that list. This list does, however, comprise of solutions to a wide array of troubles, including an antidote to poison, a sedative, a cure for typhoid, dysentery, smallpox, hemorrhages, drug overdoses and a charm to cure devil possession while warding away evil spirits.

Many of these properties are traced back to the fact that rhino horns are composed mainly of keratin, a protein with many sulfur-based amino acids, which can have a reaction to alkaline poison. This is probably what led to the claim that the horns can cure or detect poisons. In 1990, a study was done in Hong Kong, which found that the horn powder could alleviate fever in rats, but only in large doses, much larger than anything you would receive from a traditional medicinal specialist. Other than this, the claims are completely unproven, although they still pervade many Asian cultures.

Besides its medicinal uses, the rhino horns are hunted for other reasons. In Yemen, the horns are used to make the handles for Jambiya, knives coveted by Muslim men as a sign of manhood, honor, and devotion to their faith. The Jambiya handles are often intricately carved and studded with jewels as well.

More recently, a new use for the powder has been discovered and has gained popularity: a cure for hangovers. In Vietnam, the powder has become more expensive than cocaine, and is mixed with water to detoxify the body and prevent a hangover the following day.

Regardless of the potential or legitimate effects of the powder, rhinos are disappearing quickly and the killing needs to be stopped in order for them to remain as a species. A variety of measures, including bans and extensive security actions, are being enforced all over the globe to accomplish this goal.

One group, WildAid, uses familiar faces to spread their message. World-renowned basketball player, Yao Ming, is now seen among others on television screens and billboards all across China, hopefully making a change with this simple slogan: “When the buying stops, the killing will too.”

Photo by KitL Kat

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