AN IRISH gang is being hunted after a third Belgian museum was raided for rhino horns in just two months.
Belgium has now issued a warning against the trade of rhino horns after the series of thefts.
Sources told the Herald they were concerned by the rise in rhino horn heists all over the continent and were worried the gang may have started working outside Europe as well, and possibly in Africa directly.
Gardai confirmed that they were working with Europol and Interpol in order to identify the criminals.
The two police agencies have noted a surge of robberies in zoos, taxidermists, auction houses, antique dealers and private collectors as well as museums.
Last week, the Africa Museum in the city of Namur, in south central Belgium, was burgled. A man took a stuffed white rhino head while his two accomplices distracted members of staff.
The incident prompted Belgian government officials to issue a statement underlining that trade in rhino horns was illegal after being banned under the 1975 CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) agreement. Individuals who possessed rhino horns which had been obtained before the implementation of the CITES agreement in 1984 are allowed to keep them. However, these horns cannot be exported or sold without a certificated from CITES.
Rhino horns are prized for their value on the black market as they are often reduced to a powder which is used for medicinal purposes. In the Far East it is regarded as an aphrodisiac, as well as a cure for ailments such as typhoid fever.
Separately, sources told the Herald: "(Belgian officials) were forced to release a statement to ensure that the public were aware that this is an increasing problem and that they should report any activities and report anything that may look suspicious.
"Clearly they are alarmed by the frequency of the thefts, there have been between 20 and 30 such incidents across Europe so far this year, which shows that this gang is highly organised and is quite happy to move across borders to seek new targets.
"They are worried that the gang could now be looking to (commit similar crimes) in Africa where they would be even more difficult to monitor and investigate."
The two African species and the Sumatran rhinos are particularly interesting to poachers because they have two horns, while the Indian and Javan species only have one.
According to Europol, they can fetch between €25,000 and €200,000.
The Metropolitan Police in the UK have said that over the last six months there have been thefts in Portugal, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Sweden and the UK.