The slaughter of a white rhinoceros at a zoo near Paris this week was a brazen escalation for a global wildlife trafficking industry behind a poaching crisis in Africa. The incident made clear that possession of a rhino horn — which is desired in parts of Asia as an investment or as medicine, despite no scientific evidence of its medicinal efficacy — can be so lucrative that poachers were willing to break through a gate and two locked doors, as security cameras rolled, to shoot a caged rhino and saw off its horn.
European zoo officials and authorities have since said that they suspected that zoos would eventually become targets. Traffickers, after all, have pilfered rhino horns from several European auction houses, private art collections and museums, many of which have replaced previously displayed horns with replicas. Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, warned in 2011 that zoos might also be hit, Agence France-Press reported.
The killing, the first of its kind at a zoo, was a “devastating new development in the rhino poaching crisis,” Mark Pilgrim, chief executive of the Chester Zoo in England, told the Guardian. But he said the zoo had “sadly been aware of this threat for some time.”
That is not so much the case in the United States, where 91 accredited zoos have rhinoceroses. Dan Ashe, president and chief executive of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), said such a crime “was not something that we were anticipating. ‘Surprise’ is a good word.”
But could it happen here?
Maybe, for two reasons: Zoos aren’t impenetrable, and rhino-horn trafficking networks exist here, too.
“We’re confident that our facilities are very safe and the animals are safe,” Ashe said. But he added: “These are bad guys. These are criminals. And they’re very sophisticated. We all need to be sobered that this could generate copycat-type” crimes.
Ashe said AZA accreditation depends in part on having round-the-clock guards and other site-adequate security measures, which are reviewed in drills four times a year, often with law enforcement officials. Michael Hutchins, a former AZA director and former executive director of the Wildlife Society, said U.S. zoos usually bring large mammals such as rhinos inside at night — to protect against intruders but also against raccoons, cats or the occasional black bear or mountain lion.
But zoo break-ins happen. In 2012, a man entered the primate building at the Boise Zoo in Idaho and beat a monkey to death with a stick — an act his defense attorneys said was a drunken escapade that went wrong when the monkey bit him. In 2000, teenagers stole two koalas from the San Francisco Zoo; they wanted to give the animals as gifts to their girlfriends. The year before that, a man burglarized the Central Park Zoo, taking a parrot that he intended to use as payment for a debt. Hutchins said a raptor at the Bronx Zoo, where he once worked and which he said has police stationed on its premises, once went missing, and authorities believed it was stolen for use in Santeria rituals.
“We — and I think most, if not all — U.S.-accredited zoos have 24-hour security,” said Detroit Zoo Ececutive Director Ron Kagan, who added that his zoo’s two white rhinos stay inside a locked building at night. “That doesn’t necessarily stop someone from coming with a gun and doing horrible things. . . . Obviously, there’s a lot of motivation for bad characters.”
When it comes to rhinos, that motivation is the horn, a 10-to-15-pound hunk of keratin, the same protein toenails are made of. Its value has skyrocketed in recent years, driven mainly by increasing demand in China and Vietnam, where the horn is prized for supposed curative powers that have no basis in science. In China, rhino-horn art is also viewed as a good investment.
The rhino horns that exist in the United States are mostly owned by people who purchased them or hunted and mounted rhinos as trophies years ago, before laws prohibited those activities, said Ed Grace, deputy assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s law enforcement office. Not too many years ago, undercover Fish and Wildlife agents could buy a black-market horn in the United States for $10,000 to $15,000, Grace said. Now horns are sold illegally for 20 to 30 times that much.
“It’s more valuable, pound for pound, than cocaine or heroin,” Grace said. “By the time it gets to Vietnam or China or somewhere in Southeast Asia, a full horn will go for anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million.”
Rhino horn is illicitly traded by international networks in the same way drugs and weapons are, Grace said. Traffickers locate and buy horns, ship them to buyers and bribe customs officials to allow their export and import. It is a bloody enterprise — mostly for the rhinos, more than 1,000 of which were poached last year in South Africa, but also for the wildlife rangers who protect them.
And as in the drug trade, there are gangs. The most prominent is the Rathkeale Rovers, an Ireland-based organization linked to dozens of rhino-horn thefts from European museums and other facilities between 2011 and 2014. In 2010, U.S. officials arrested two of its members attempting to buy rhino horn in Colorado.
Though there have been no brazen museum break-ins here, the Irish gang’s existence in the United States and spiking rhino-horn prices prompted Fish and Wildlife Services to launch a rhino-horn investigation five years ago. The investigation is ongoing and has led to more than three dozen convictions, Grace said, including that of a father and son in California who exported rhino horns to Vietnam.
The value of rhino horn and the global span of its trade means that there are people in the United States who would have incentive to target zoos. But Ashe said he thinks the U.S. prosecutions, as well as the United States’ role as more of a “transshipment” spot in trafficking, make a rhino killing at a U.S. zoo less likely.
Hutchins said: “They’re taking some major chances here by breaking into a zoo and killing an animal for its horn. So it’s a relatively new risk for zoos, but something they’re going to have to start thinking more seriously about.”