Czech museums on alert over rhino horns thefts

Thieves recently broke into a museum in the north-east of the Czech Republic boasting a magnificent display of hunting trophies, and took what they believed to be a rhino horn. Although this particular horn was fake, the burglary was the latest in a series of similar incidents that have occurred around Europe. The police suspect it might be the work of an international gang making profit from rhino horns which are in demand for their alleged medicinal properties.

The latest case occurred in the chateau of Napajedla, in the east of the Czech Republic, where staff last week discovered the theft of several items featured in an African-themed exhibition. The police have not confirmed that horns were among the stolen artefacts but the exhibition did feature a stuffed rhino.

Several items at the exhibit were on loan from the zoo in Dvůr Králové, famous for its breeding programme of white rhinos. Jana Myslivečková is the zoo’s spokeswoman.

“Our zoo has tightened security measures. We have a 24-hour security service and the most precious animals are under close surveillance.”

Earlier this month, thieves also broke into a chateau in Linhartovy, a small village in the north-east of the country, which boasted a private collection of hunting trophies including a rhino. This time however, they only took a fake rhino horn.

But in June, antique rhino horns worth millions of crowns were stolen from a museum in Úsov, in the same region. Czech authorities estimate that hundreds of rhino horns are part of museum collections across the Czech Republic, mostly brought to the country by aristocrats in the 19th century from hunting expeditions to Africa.

Following a rising number of these cases in the Czech Republic, Germany, the UK, Sweden and other countries, the Czech authorities have asked all institutions with rhino horns in their collections to exercise extra caution. Stanislav Brunclík is the spokesman for the Culture Ministry.

“We have registered only one case of rhino horn theft in an institution directly under our administration, which happened in the National Agriculture Museum. We have issued instructions for these organizations to pay much more attention to security, and make sure that the items are safe even if they are lent to another institution.”

Soren Pedersen
The European Union’s criminal intelligence agency, Europol, attributes some of the recent cases to an Irish criminal gang. But Europol’s spokesman Soren Pedersen says other criminal groups might have been involved, too.

“We can’t say that every rhino horn theft from now on or earlier can be linked to these people. I think others have also realized how valuable these horns are. But it seems that this Irish gang has been very good at indentifying rhino horns all over Europe. So far, these cases have mainly occurred in central and northern Europe. But now, there has also been one theft and one attempt in Hungary.”

In some Asian countries, especially in China, rhino horns are in high demand due to their alleged medicinal properties. They are believed to cure a number of illnesses, from fever to cancer, and they are also considered a potent aphrodisiac.

Although no curative properties have been scientifically proven, illegal trade in rhino horns is flourishing and they sell for thousands of dollars on the black market.