DNA trap for rhino horn raiders

A taxidermist removes the horn of a stuffed exhibit to be replaced with a wooden dummy. Photograph: AFP/Lisa Schaeublin/Natural History Museum of Berne
A taxidermist removes the horn of a stuffed exhibit to be replaced with a wooden dummy. Photograph: AFP/Lisa Schaeublin/Natural History Museum of Berne
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A UNIQUE DNA database is being developed in Scotland to help police crack down on thefts of African rhinoceros horns from museums across Europe.

It is thought that organised crime gangs more commonly associated with drug trafficking, money laundering and smuggling, have targeted more than 50 museums and auction houses in the past year, including in the UK.

The night-time raids are a response to soaring prices for rhino horn in the Far East, where it can fetch £60,000 a kilo due to its supposed medicinal qualities, making it more valuable than gold and cocaine. Museums in Scotland that possess horns brought back by Victorian and Edwardian explorers have now taken the genuine versions off display and replaced them with plastic replicas.

But wildlife crime scientists at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland are developing a DNA profiling test that can be used to identify stolen horns even when ground down into powdered form. Tiny holes will be drilled in the base of each horn to extract samples from which a DNA profile can be constructed and stored.

Dr Lucy Webster, lead scientist at the Wildlife DNA Forensic Unit at Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (Sasa), said the new technique would allow any rhino horn seized by police at border crossings to be identified, linking the thieves to the crime and helping bring about a prosecution.

Webster said: “Illegally traded rhino horn is reported to be selling for huge sums on the black market. This has increased the pressure on wild populations of rhino in Africa, but has also started to attract the interest of organised criminals in stealing old rhino horn from museums and trophy collections around Europe.

“This project will provide a DNA link from these specimens, should they be stolen, to stolen rhino horn recovered by border agencies or police.

“This evidence could then be used to tie suspects involved in rhino horn smuggling to specific thefts, as well as helping enforcement agencies to untangle the trade routes being used by such criminals.”

It is not thought that any museums in Scotland have so far been targeted by the gangs, which have become known as the “rhino horn mafia”.

But officials were advised by Europol to take rhino horns off display and replace them with replicas. Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow said it had taken a horn off display and a spokesman for the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh said the horns of any rhinos on display had now been clearly labelled as fakes.

Thefts have taken place south of the Border, however, to feed the trade in powdered rhino horn, valued in traditional Oriental medicine as a remedy for conditions ranging from fevers and headaches to cancer, despite a lack of scientific proof.

Last July, two intruders broke into Ipswich Museum and wrenched a horn off a rhino that had been on display since 1907.

In February last year, the stuffed and mounted head of a black rhino was taken from Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers in Essex, and in May, a similar head was taken from the Educational Museum in Haslemere, Surrey. In August, two replica rhino horns were stolen in Tring, Hertfordshire.

Last month, four raiders forced open a display case containing a rhino head at Norwich Castle Museum before being disturbed by staff.

There have been similar thefts in Portugal, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Belgium and Sweden. German police believe the gang could be linked to the murder of a woman who may have witnessed a raid in Offenburg.

A spokesman for Europol said there had been more than 50 rhino-related break-ins across Europe over the past year and welcomed the development of the DNA database in Scotland. “Everything that can help like this would be of interest,” he said.

Webster, who will speak about the new techniques at a National Wildlife Crime forum in Kincardine, Fife, this week, said: “From a research point of view, this database will provide genetic information from wild rhino populations alive over 100 years ago which will be an interesting study in comparison with current wild rhino populations,” she said.

The DNA profiling tool, developed by scientists at RZSS in collaboration with the University of Bangor, is being used in South Africa to identify horns from rhinos killed on game reserves. It is hoped it will help identify trade routes used for smuggling horns out of the country.

» jfyall@scotlandonsunday.com