In recent months, museums throughout Europe have been the targets of particularly crafty criminals -- not international jewelry thieves, but illegal wildlife dealers. While the poaching of rhinos in Africa continues to devastate the endangered species, their stuffed counterparts on display in museums across England, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Sweden and France have faired little better. According to police, thieves have turned to stealing rhino horns from educational museum displays in order to sell them on the black market in Asia.After several incidences of theft, often committed covertly but sometimes through breaking an entering, police have put museums with rhino displays on alert. In response to the warnings of raiding gangs of horn thieves, which have so far been responsible for vandalizing exhibits throughout Europe, museums have beefed up security measures -- and have even begun replacing stuffed-rhinos' horns with fakes to foil would-be wildlife dealers.
According to the BBC, those responsible for the thefts are apparently unafraid of threatening violence in their pursuit of museums' horns -- not unlike those killing live rhinos in Africa with similar ends in mind.
Thieves use a variety of methods, including "smash and grab" style raids and overnight burglaries. They have been known to use force when challenged.
Paolo Viscardi, deputy keeper of natural history at the Horniman Museum, said he was concerned about reports of tear gas being used by thieves and emphasised that staff safety was the museum's top priority.
"People who steal rhino horn can be quite aggressive. We don't want our staff to be open to those threats."
Meanwhile, the European policing agency Europol is investigating the thefts, and have so far found links to the black market in Asia, where rhino horns are considered to have medicinal qualities and are sold for roughly $60,000 per kilo.
'These crimes obviously have grave implications for museum collections and visitors, as well as the Earth's rhinos, who are being slaughtered to near extinction to fuel the demand for their horns on the black market,' says the International Fund for Animal Welfare and Save the Rhino International, as reported by Metro.
While museums in Europe work to counter the trend of horn thefts, the troubling practice continues on a near unprecedented scale to the real-life animals in places like South Africa. So far this year, over 200 rhinos have been killed by poachers -- putting 2011 on track to be one of the worst years on record for the endangered species.
As the specter of extinction loomed over rhinos in the wild, there was cold comfort in the belief that their majestic visage would be around in museums, at least, for future generations to marvel over -- but sadly, that may not be the case.