When one thinks of a museum being robbed, the image of the famous ‘Mona Lisa’ being stuffed in a black bag comes to mind by people in dark clothing and covered faces. A high tech and thought out movement that could contain a number of gadgets and weaponry that would not be out of place in a Bond movie. But now for the past year, the museums of Europe have been ravaged by a different sort of robbery. It was one that started many years ago in the plains of Africa and has since, apparently, moved on to the marbled walls and hallways of some of the finest museums in the world. Rhino Horn.
During the past 12 months, museums across Germany and Paris have found themselves targeted as an organised criminal gang use sledge hammers and even at one point, gas, to remove the horns from the mounted heads of the long dead animals.
The gang, believed to be operating out of Dublin, are then selling the stolen, hacked off horns to markets in China and Vietnam for hundreds of thousands of euro for their continued use in traditional Chinese medicine.
The Natural History Museum located on Upper Merrion Street, a short five minute walk from Pearse Street train station is a popular location for tourists, school trips and a simple day out for many. Though not targeted yet as have other museums in England, the staff in the museum had to make the difficult decision to remove
the rhino horns from one of their most magnificent displays.
Markus Cashen, who works at the museum, says they had been aware of the robberies around the world,
“There was a museum in England and they tear gassed the place. They didn’t realise the horns were made of fibre glass.”
The museum was quick to fit CCTV cameras around the rhino display and removed the separate rhino horns from the walls so any visitors looking forward to seeing authentic rhino horn will be disappointed that they have had to be hidden from sight.
It is not surprising that the museum took the measure of removing the artefacts as the buildings in France, Germany and Britain have been targeted with gas and even sledge hammers.
Nigel Monaghan, the keeper of the Natural History Museum in Dublin says, “We took the decision to remove the horns to reduce the risk of anybody wishing to target them. Our concern was the endangerment of our visitors and staff.”
The danger was there as Mark Cashen recalls the people who had been noticed paying a little bit too much attention to their rhino.
“More and more strange looking people were loitering with intent in the museum around the rhino horns. We put up the CCTV cameras but people could be seen congregating around the rhino very often and in a suspicious manner so the Gardai looked through our CCTV footage and said, ‘you have to take the horns down.’ “
But why have these rhino horns suddenly been targeted? It is a known fact that rhino horn has been used as a product in Chinese Medicine for hundreds of years, a belief that has caused the wild rhino population to drop to near extinction. Rhino horn can be shaved into a fine powder in countries such as China and Vietnam and when dissolved in boiling water, the ingredient is used to treat ailments such as fever, rheumatism and other disorders. It was even at some point believed to be an aphrodisiac, though this has since been denied.
The recent spate of robberies however, has been born from another theory that rhino horn can now cure cancer, putting the item in rich demand in China, Japan and Vietnam. However, rhino horn is purely made up of keratin, a substance that can be found to make up our own nails and hair and does not contain any healing properties.
The American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine made a statement confirming the ideas of medicinal purposes in rhino horn was rubbish. The president of the organisation, Lixin Huang said, “That there is no traditional use, nor any evidence for the effectiveness of, rhino horn as a cure for cancer.”
The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine in the UK was also quick to issue a statement last September when the thefts began. It strongly condemned the illegal trade in endangered species and has a strict policy prohibiting the use of any type of endangered species by any of its members.
Many wildlife and environmental organisations were thrilled to see the statement made and not only that but the RCHM marked the World Rhino Day on its website which falls every September.
Though it is illegal to sell endangered species for the use in medicine, much of the buying and selling is done in Asian black markets where it is difficult to pinpoint the exact culprit of the crime.
It can be hard to change a long tradition, especially one that’s millions of years old such as traditional Chinese medicine. Not only is this medicine used in Asia but has become increasingly popular across Western countries as alternative medicine. However, this kind of medicine and its effectiveness has not been researched as thoroughly as modern medicine.
A majority of ingredients used in traditional Chinese medicine are plants and were not considered endangered. But with the increase in human population and the demand in this medicine growing along with the decline in animal species, more and more animals are starting to rapidly decline in number to a terrifying result of possible extinction. Rhino horns are most commonly known but Saiga antelope horns are also being used and endangering the species. Tigers, leopards, green sea turtles and sea lions are all on the ingredient list as well as some plants such as American ginseng root which are threatened and protected species.
Efforts have been made by countries to prohibit the trade in endangered animals and protected plants. A wildlife treaty, CITES, was signed by more than 160 countries and it prohibits international trade of many animal and plants species.
Despite this, it is obvious trade is still occurring even with old rhino horn stolen from a museum. At the start of the 20th century, there was almost only 200 rhinos left in Africa but due to work put in by reserves and conservationists, this number has reached almost 18,000 in the white rhino species. Whilst much improved from a couple of hundred, the rhinos are still in a vulnerable position.
The Black Rhino is the most endangered breed of the hefty animal and its numbers have been in a scary decline. They number 4,200 throughout Africa today but are still in danger from poachers for their valuable assets.
The threat of poaching has put conservationists in a difficult position. Because of the value of a horn and the price paid for them, whether it is for medicinal use or for jewellery design, the rhinos are often shot dead for even a stub of a horn, leaving the people that have cared for the animals and their survival, heartbroken.
Rhino calves are often left orphans when their mothers are shot, horn hacked off and left for dead by poachers. This leaves reserves to build an orphanage where rhino calves can live in safety but what about when they older and grown their own horns? How can the reserves choose to protect them when it has proved so impossible in the past?
In efforts to protect the rhinos from poachers, rangers have started using rather unorthodox methods to save them. Recently, poison was injected into an old bull rhino’s horn by veterinarians in an effort to dissuade poachers from taking them for medicinal purposes. Though it was declared the poison would not harm the rhino, the tranquiliser used on Spencer the rhino, triggered a suspected heart defect and he never woke up.
Though not directly responsible, in a way, poachers had claimed another life.
Other reserves have also been removing the horns themselves. Tracking their rhinos, they tranquilize the animal and move in quickly to perform a quick and almost painless procedure. They quickly saw off the horn, leaving only a small stub. They can also tag and place a tracking device on the rhino for monitoring and tracking.
Though it may seem unnatural, the rangers are protecting the rhinos from further harm from poachers and have said that the male rhinos inflict less damage on each other during wild fights as neither has their horns originally used to gore each other in conquest over a female.
Though the poison treatment did not work on Spencer, rangers and conservationists refuse to stop trying to protect their beloved animals.
Lorinda Hern’s family owns the Rhino and Lion reserve in South Africa and is prepared to fight for the rhino’s lives. In a recent interview with GlobalPost, she describes the need to do something.
“We effectively lost three rhinos in one incident,” she said. “We felt a desperate need to do something urgently.”
The distress in all reserves is obvious as it becomes harder to protect the rhinos with the growing demand in rhino horn. With steady breeding programmes in zoos around the world, the breed will never truly go extinct but rhinos in the wild may sadly become a thing of the past unless something major is done to stop the poaching. Even people refusing to buy items of Chinese medicine associated with rhino horn would help.
Mark Cashen remarks sadly as he looks at the hornless rhino in the Natural History Museum, “Even after his death, he’s still under threat.”
Chinese Medicine is useful in terms of natural, fast growing herbs and acupuncture but when it comes to using keratin in horn to cure cancer...well, you might as well chew your fingernails for the good it will do you.
For alternative medicine that is not putting some of the world’s most beautiful animals in danger, acupuncture is effective for many kinds of treatments.
Acupuncture is when non hypodermic, steel needles are swiftly inserted into acupuncture points on the body. There is minimum pain and the sensation is believed to mean that the treatment has begun and ‘energy’ is dispersed throughout the acupuncture point. The needle can be left for only a few minutes or up to half an hour. The traditional acupuncture is along the lines of what the Chinese call ‘qi’ and how it moves. When qi moves throughout the body, helped by the needles in the point, a person can remain healthy. When there is too little or too much of qi, sickness can occur within a body. Acupuncture influences the flow of qi throughout the body and its effect on blood and fluids.
‘Cupping’ is another popular Chinese method. It is essentially cups being placed upon bare skin. The skin inside the cup swells up as air is withdrawn and into the space inside the glass. It is left on the skin for some time and then removed and the skin falls back into its normal place.
There are many different ways of cupping, some the air is heated, others tools are used to withdraw the air.
It can also be used over acupuncture needles or moved across the skin. It has been used for thousands of years for all kinds of ages. It can be used for diseases, or to cure boils or even encourage bleeding.
Colds and fevers can also benefit in the early stages from cupping as well as bad circulation and emotional stress. It helps the body clear out toxins, move around lymph and repair damages tissue.
Not all of Chinese medicine has a bad name, and referring to methods such as cupping and acupuncture which have registered effect rather than unproved believes such as powdered rhino horn can help show the world what really works...and what really doesn’t.