U.S. zoos worry after rhino slain in France

Poach­ing for an­i­mal’s valu­able horn poses an in­creas­ing threat

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY KARIN BRULLIARD karin.brulliard@wash­post.com

The slaugh­ter of a white rhinoceros at a zoo near Paris this past week was a brazen es­ca­la­tion for a global wildlife traf­fick­ing in­dus­try. The in­ci­dent made clear that rhino horn 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 author­i­ties said they had 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-Presse 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 rhi­no­horn 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 roundthe-clock guards and other se­cu­rity mea­sures, which are re­viewed in drills four times a year, of­ten with law en­force­ment of­fi­cials. Michael Hutchins, a for­mer AZA di­rec­tor, 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, which he said has po­lice sta­tioned on its premises, once went miss­ing, and author­i­ties think it was stolen for use in San­te­ria rit­u­als.

Detroit Zoo Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Ron Ka­gan said 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-15pound 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 Ire­land­based 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 rhi­no­horn 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.”

More at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ blogs/an­i­malia

ARTHUS BOUTIN/DOMAINE DE THOIRY VIA EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

White rhinoceroses Vince, left, and Bruno in their en­clo­sure at Thoiry Zoo west of Paris. Vince was found dead by keep­ers last week; he had been shot by poach­ers who then sawed off his horn.

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