Last Thursday, the University of Vermont in Burlington discovered that someone disabled a lock at Torrey Hall, which houses the school’s herbarium and natural history collection. The thief stole just one thing: a black rhino horn that had been hanging in the hall for decades. According to Wilson Ring of the Associated Press, it’s likely that the thief stole the horn to sell on the black market.
“My immediate impression is that someone went through some great trouble to target this thing and obtain it,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Robert Rothe, who worked on the elephant tusk and rhino horn trade in the past tells Ring. “It’s obviously very, very valuable if it makes its way to Asia.”
The University is offering a $3,000 reward for the return of the horn, Ring reports. A spokesperson tells Taylor Dobbs at Vermont Public Radio that the University is not sure exactly where the horn comes from, but it likely came to University’s Fleming Museum in the early 1900s and was transferred to what was then the Department of Zoology in Torrey Hall in the 1950s.
The theft may be part of a disturbing new trend in which rhino horn poachers target horns outside of Africa. In March, poachers killed a black rhino in a zoo just west of Paris, shooting it in the head and sawing off its horn with a chainsaw. In April, an Ireland-based gang of thieves went on trial for stealing up to 80 rhino horns from museums and natural history collections across Europe.
It’s possible that collections and zoos around the world will see more trouble. Ed Grace, deputy assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s law enforcement office tells Karen Brulliard at The Washington Post that prices for rhino horns have increased 20 to 30 times in recent years, and a full horn now sells for $500,000 to $1 million.
The price bump could come from several sources. One, as Gwynn Guilford reports for The Atlantic, is a rumor in Vietnam that powdered rhino horn could cure cancer. Between 1990 and 2007, rhino poaching was almost snuffed out as traditional Chinese medicine began phasing out rhino powder. But after the cancer rumor started—as well as a rumor that the horn is a potent aphrodisiac “party drug”—poaching skyrocketed. Now, in the last ten years, over 7,100 rhinos have been poached in Africa, though in the last two years those numbers have begun to dip slightly.
“We have this whole illegal trade that is leading to the demise of this species because of this ridiculous idea that these things have value as an aphrodisiac,” Bill Kilpatrick, a zoology and natural history professor at the University of Vermont tells Ring. He says that with new research techniques, zoologists might be able to learn quite a bit about rhinos from historic samples like the one in Torrey Hall, but that data is lost when specimens are stolen.