By Adam Higginbotham
When the phone rang at about 3 a.m. on April 18, Nigel Monaghan was asleep on the floor in his office in Dublin, tangled in a sleeping bag. In his job as Keeper of the National Museum of Ireland’s natural history section, he was overseeing filming of the latest episode of a children’s TV special, Sleepover Safari. Ten children, their parents, and a film crew were spending the night in the museum, known locally as the Dead Zoo, surrounded by Ireland’s foremost collection of taxidermy.
The call was from the museum’s central security office. Four stuffed rhino heads—ones Monaghan had sent away for safekeeping a year earlier—had been stolen from the museum’s storage facility near the airport. At 10:40 p.m., three masked men forced their way in, tied up the single guard on duty, and found the shelves where the heads were kept. The trophies were heavy and awkward. Expertly stuffed and mounted by big game taxidermists at the turn of the 20th century, they were monstrous confections of skin and bone, plaster and timber, horsehair and straw. When Monaghan and his team had come to move the largest—that of a white rhino shot in Sudan in 1914, with a horn more than three feet long—it had taken four men just to lift it down from the museum wall. But the burglars were undeterred, and soon they had every head in the back of their white van. They took nothing else, and within an hour they were gone.
Monaghan couldn’t go back to sleep. He turned on the office lights, sat at his computer, and began writing a press release. It seemed the Rathkeale Rovers had struck again.
Rhino horn is one of the world’s most valuable illegal commodities, part of an international trade in endangered species estimated to be worth $10 billion a year, according to Global Financial Integrity, a research organization that tracks underground commerce. Over the last century, rhinos have been hunted to the brink of extinction, and traffic in rhino products is now regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). In Asia, powdered rhino horn has long been a valued part of traditional medicine. It’s recently become more prized by a new capitalist elite in Vietnam—where it’s mixed with wine at parties, an emblem of conspicuous consumption—and China.
Word of the fortune hidden in rhino horns spread quietly at first. For years, horns mounted before 1947 were exempt from the export regulations of CITES and could be legally exported from Europe. But in 2006 antique horns began achieving unprecedented prices at auction; over three years their cost rose tenfold. In 2010, after a single horn sold at British auction for a world record £99,300 ($164,000), European authorities announced an export ban on antique rhino trophies.
Ten years ago a single horn weighing up to 30 pounds would have sold in the U.S. for a maximum of $20,000. “Now horn in the United States is selling anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000 a pound,” says Edward Grace, deputy assistant director for law enforcement at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington. “By the time it gets to Asia, a single horn can easily be worth $500,000.”
Although powdered rhino horn pound for pound is now worth more than cocaine or heroin, the prison terms for trafficking in it are a fraction of those for the equivalent weight of narcotics. The sentence for a first-time offender smuggling a kilo of heroin in the U.S. is a minimum of 10 years in prison; according to Grace, a first-time offender smuggling a kilo of horn would get off with less than a year, and more likely a fine. “It’s a high-profit, low-risk crime,” he says.
The first signs of an Irish connection in the world of rhino horn trafficking went almost unnoticed. In January 2010 customs officers at Ireland’s Shannon Airport confiscated eight horns from the baggage of two passengers on a flight from Faro, Portugal. Officials weren’t even certain a crime had been committed; they had never seized a rhino horn before. No arrests were immediately made, and the evidence was sent to Dublin Zoo for analysis. The passengers were Jeremiah and Michael O’Brien, Irish brothers who said they were traveling antique dealers who spent most of their time living in French and German RV parks. If any international alert was transmitted about the O’Briens, John Reid, then the Irish police force’s liaison to Europol, never received it.