Tuesday 24 October 2017

Irish gang suspected in rhinoceros horn thefts

A spate of robberies has prompted Europol and gardai to warn potential targets, writes Aoife Drew

In demand: The mistaken belief that rhino horn is an
aphrodisiac has led to a poaching crisis in Asia and Africa
In demand: The mistaken belief that rhino horn is an aphrodisiac has led to a poaching crisis in Asia and Africa

The Irish featured on the front page of French broadsheet Le Figaro last Wednesday. The topic? Our national debt, corporate tax rate or even David Norris's withdrawal from the Irish presidential race? Mais non. We hit the headlines for a different, bizarre reason, with money and sex being the underlying factors.

As unlikely as it may seem, the latest crime in vogue in Europe is rhinoceros horn theft, and an Irish gang is alleged to be behind it. The criminals sell the tusks to customers hoping to add some spice to their sex lives -- individuals willing to pay an extremely high price.

There have been robberies in Portugal, France, Germany, in the Czech Republic and Sweden. The most recent target was the Museum of Natural Sciences in Brussels.

Apparently, it only took a few minutes for thieves to run off with a heavy stuffed rhinoceros head from the museum, leaving the curator bereft.

"For 80 years we took care of it, and now all of a sudden it's no longer there," said Georges Lenglet, who holds little hope of getting the stolen head back.

The museum had never experienced a break-in since its establishment over 160 years ago.

France has also experienced a spate of this kind of crime. According to newspaper France Soir, a rhinoceros head weighing 100kg was stolen from a museum in Blois in the Loire Valley region, and an attempted robbery was reported by the International Hunting Museum in the town of Gien, in the Loiret area.

Europol, in conjunction with the gardai, has alerted potential targets -- museums, zoos, antique dealers -- against potential burglaries.

Why rhinoceros horns? For the simple reason that they are worth a fortune, particularly in Asia. One tusk alone is worth around $15,000 on the black market, and prices can even reach up to €200,000, Europol reports. The older it is, the more expensive.

The horns have been renowned throughout the centuries for their alleged aphrodisiac qualities. The powder form was thought to induce sexual marvels and make the earth move for both partners. Fans of this remedy also drink potions from libation cups sculpted from the tusks, in

the hope of improving their sex drive, strength and vigour.

It's certainly a pricey way of getting your kicks, but the demand is high and criminals have spotted a niche in the market. The number one suspect behind the recent thefts is the so-called 'Tarmacadam Gang'. The gang, believed to be composed of Irish and British con men from the Travelling community, turns up at people's homes offering to lay tarmac on drives for a bargain price. They take the money and set the tarmac, which is usually of such poor quality that it needs to be redone by a reputable company.

The gang's alleged array of crimes is broad. It was suspected to be at the root of the murder of two men in Millas, a small town near Perpignan in South-East France, late last year and, according to Agence France Presse, has also been rumoured to traffic drugs and arms. And now the gang has targeted the lucrative sector of rhino tusks.

Last May, two Irish men from Rathkeale in Limerick, Richard O'Brien and Michael Hegarty, were arrested in Colorado for trying to export four horns back to Ireland. They were sentenced to six months in prison and three years' probation, along with a $17,600 fine.

Despite this setback, it seems that the group is very well organised and rarely gets caught, at least not yet in Europe. Magazine Le Point last week reported that during the recent robbery of the Museum of Natural Sciences in Brussels, one man distracted the caretaker, while two others lifted the bolt of the display case. They then took the head (which weighed approximately 30kg) and escaped out the windows of the toilets.

"The thieves use every criminal method possible," notes Patrick Byrne of Europol.

The rhino heads sell quickly on the black market and then the offenders camouflage their gains by purchasing expensive cars and apartments.

The sad fact is that this spate of robberies is closely connected to the slaughter of rhinos in Asia and Africa.

"In the last three years, 800 African rhinos have been killed and experts agree that we are facing the worst rhino poaching crisis in decades," says Lucy Boddam-Whetham, Acting Director of Save the Rhino International.

The worst aspect is that the murder is utterly futile. Experts have declared rhino horns to have no medicinal value, nor effect on libido, whatsoever.

Even if they did, what an expensive way to improve one's love life. Surely a packet of Viagra would provide better value? It seems some superstitions never die.

Sunday Independent

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