Thieves steal three rhino horns from Leicester museum amid fears crime gangs are targeting institutions for precious ivory

Thieves steal three rhino horns from museum amid fears crime gangs are targeting institutions for precious horns and ivory to sell in the Far East
Three rhino horns were stolen from Leicester’s New Walk MuseumExperts fear pieces will be sold on black market by organised criminals
Rhino horns are used in traditional medicines and aphrodisiacs in many Asian countries

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UPDATED:

18:21 GMT, 30 November 2012

Three rhino horns worth tens of thousands of pounds have been stolen from a British museum.

Thieves broke into the secure storage area at Leicester’s New Walk Museum and made off with the valuable pieces.

Experts fear the items, which have been in museum’s collection for 50 years, may have been taken by an organised crime gang who plan to sell them on the black market.

Rhino horns and elephant tusks can fetch tens of thousands of pounds in some Asian countries, where they are used as ingredients for traditional medicines and, in some cases, aphrodisiacs.

Three rhino horns were stolen from a Leicester museum. Some Asian countries believe crushed horn has healing properties and use it to make traditional medicines

Three rhino horns were stolen from a Leicester museum. Some Asian countries believe crushed horn has healing properties and use it to make traditional medicines (file picture)

The rhino horns were stolen from a secure storage area at the New Walk Museum in Leicester

The rhino horns were stolen from a secure storage area at the New Walk Museum in Leicester (pictured)

The theft comes as a spate of similar crimes have been reported across Europe.

Last year European police agency Europol
have warned that crime gangs were targeting museums, particularly those in
smaller towns and cities, specifically for rhino horns.

Museum staff are unsure about when the horns were taken, but the theft is believed to have happened in the past few months.

Leicestershire Police was informed of the theft in September, when staff were sure the horns, which were kept in a storage area, had been stolen and not simply mislaid.

Officers have now launched an investigation into the incident and recently arrested a 57-year-old man on suspicion of the theft.

He has been released on police bail while officers continue their investigation.

Leicester City Council, which runs the museum, said it had improved security since the incident came to light.

The items have not been on public display
for many years because of the authority’s opposition to the trade in
endangered species’ body parts.

A city council spokesman said: 'We can confirm that three rhino horns went missing from the museum stores in September.

Rhino horns can fetch tens of thousands of pounds when sold on the black market

Rhino horns can fetch tens of thousands of pounds when sold on the black market (file picture)

WHY ARE RHINO HORNS IN DEMAND

Rhino horn is made of keratin, which people in some Asian countries believe has healing properties.

Traditional healers in Vietnam and China use it in a range of remedies, including cancer treatments and hangover cures.

But doctors in the UK say rhino horn has no medicinal properties.

According to environmentalists say that in the past five years, growing incomes in the Far East have meant more people can get access to crushed horn, despite the 35,000-per-kilo price tag.

This has resulted in the number of rhinos being poached for their horns soaring.

'The practice of hunting rhinos for
their horns has decimated the population of several species and the
horns would never have been exhibited.

'But they have been in our possession for more than 50 years and we were very disappointed that they had been stolen.

'Since discovering the theft we have
had a complete review of security and access to our stores, and
implemented new and more stringent procedures.'

Dr Dave Unwin, of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, said: “Rhino horns and, indeed, elephant tusks, are extremely valuable in Asia, where they are ground up and sold as medicine or aphrodisiacs.

'There has been a spate of these thefts across the country in recent years and these items can be sold for tens of thousands of pounds.

'So, the New Walk Museum is certainly not the first victim, but what is unusual here is that these items appear to have been stolen from an area which wasn’t easily accessible to the public.'

A report by Europol last year highlighted the theft of rhino horns as a growing problem in the UK.

The report said: 'The theft of rhino horn shows how organised criminals are always on the look-out for new and creative crime opportunities.

'The attraction towards rhino horn clearly stems from the high value of this rare commodity.

'Depending on the size and quality of the specimen, a rhino horn can be worth between 25,000 and 200,000 euros.

'Rhino horns are used for decoration, to produce luxury products and also used in traditional medicine, despite it being proven ineffective.

The report highlighted one Irish gang’s methods.

It said: 'To source and acquire rhino horns, the group has targeted antique dealers, auction houses, art galleries, museums, private collections and zoos, resorting to theft and aggravated burglary where necessary

'To sell specimens, they have exploited international auction houses in the UK, France, USA and China.'