By Kate Katharina Ferguson
The large collection of African hunting trophies at the Offenburg Museum in the southwestern German city of the same name has long been a source of great pride at the cultural institution. It is based on around 80 stuffed animals donated to the museum in 1950 by Gretchen Cron, a wealthy woman who, together with her husband, spent much of her life hunting in exotic places until the outbreak of World War II. Cron felt so guilty about killing so many animals in danger of extinction that she donated her collection to the museum.
Among the trophies displayed was the head of a black rhinoceros, a species native to South Africa. On Saturday, Feb. 18, four thieves entered the museum during broad daylight. Two of them distracted the museum staff and the two others rushed over to the rhino head. They removed the trophy from its display, mounted at a lofty 4 meters (13 feet), and broke off its horn with a sledgehammer. Museum officials described the act as "brazen and brutal."
Three weeks later, last weekend, police in Munich arrested two men and a woman in connection with the attack, which is part of a growing and disturbing trend in thefts of rhinoceros horns in Europe. Officials believe the thefts may be related to the popularity of rhino horns in East Asian traditional medicine.
Officials at Europol, the European Union's criminal intelligence agency, claim the number of thefts of rhinoceros horns has increased sharply in Europe during the past year. Since 2011, the agency has recorded 56 successful and 10 attempted thefts. Criminals purloined horns from museums and private collections in 15 countries, with many of the thefts believed to be linked to "an Irish and ethnically Irish organized criminal group, who are known to use intimidation and violence to achieve their ends." The group is believed to be active in Asia, North and South America and Europe.
Rhinoceros horns, which contain high levels of the protein keratin, have long been used in East Asian traditional medicines. "Rhinoceros horn is touted as a cure-all," Rhishja Cota-Larson of the California-based organization Saving Rhinos told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It supposedly treats eczema, anxiety, convulsions, boils and devil possession," she said. Europol spokesman Soren Pedersen said the increase in crimes may also be linked to a rumor that rhinoceros horns can cure cancer. But scientists have not found the horn, which is ingested in powdered form, to be of any medical benefit. "You'd get the same effect by chewing your fingernails," said Nigel Monaghan, keeper of the National Museum of Ireland, which has a significant collection of taxidermy animals. More....