DUBLIN (AP) — Masked men stole stuffed rhinoceros heads containing eight valuable horns from the warehouse of Ireland's National Museum, police and museum officials said Thursday, in a heist being linked to an Irish Gypsy gang that specializes in such raids across Europe.
Police said three men raided the storeroom in Swords, north of Dublin, on Wednesday night and tied up the lone security guard. He later freed himself and raised the alarm.
Nigel Monaghan, keeper at the National Museum's natural history section, said the museum had never experienced such a theft before but had worried that the rhinos would be targeted. He said the four heads — three of black rhinos from Kenya, one of the virtually extinct white rhino from Sudan, all killed more than a century ago — were removed from display last year and put into storage specifically to safeguard them from thieves.
He said the eight horns could be worth a total of about €500,000 ($650,000) on the black market based on their weight.
Three of the five species of rhinoceros in Africa and South Asia have been hunted to the verge of extinction because their horns command exceptionally high prices for use in traditional Asian medicine chiefly in China and Vietnam, where the powdered horn is marketed as an aphrodisiac and even as a cure for cancer. The horns are made of keratin, a fibrous protein that is the building block for skin and hair, and has no documented medicinal value.
In 2011, Europol issued a warning that an Irish Gypsy criminal network based in the County Limerick village of Rathkeale was responsible for dozens of thefts of rhino horns across Europe. Europol said the thieves — officially called the Rathkeale Rovers but also dubbed the Dead Zoo Gang by Dublin tabloids — had already targeted museums, galleries, zoos, auction houses, antique dealers and private collections in Britain, continental Europe, the United States and South America.
In 2010, U.S. undercover agents arrested two members of the Rathkeale gang trying to buy four black rhino horns in Colorado. They both received six-month prison sentences.
Rathkeale is considered the epicenter for Ireland's Gypsy minority, known locally as "travellers." They own most of the properties in the town, which regularly experiences huge influxes of Irish travellers from throughout Ireland and Britain arriving in luxury vehicles for clan events.
Irish police and Europol say the Rathkeale criminal network also is involved in road-tarmac fraud and the sale of counterfeit goods, particularly tools and engine parts.