On Wednesday, the University of Vermont Police Services announced that a rhinoceros horn had been stolen from the UVM campus. The demand for rhino horns has led to a global black market and a string of crimes – from museum thefts to the gruesome killings of threatened rhinos. In March, a rhino was even slaughtered inside of a zoo in Paris.
Author and wildlife trafficking expert Laurel Neme joined Vermont Edition to put the UVM theft in the context of rhino horn poaching worldwide. She is author of the book Animal Investigators: How the World's First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species.
"Traditionally, rhino horn was used in traditional Asian medicine ... but it actually has no medicinal value," Neme says.
Around 2008, she explains, a rumor circulated in Vietnam that rhino horns could be used to cure cancer, and that caused an increase in demand for them. But there's also a belief that rhino horn powder can cure hangovers and Neme says possessing rhinoceros horn can be seen as a status symbol in parts of the world. Neme says the value of a rhino horn on the black market can quickly rise into the low six figures. So money is a major motivation in theft and poaching.
At the start of the 20th century there were around half a million rhinos in the world, but Neme explains that their population has been in decline and rhinos have even been "hunted out" in some parts of Asia. Now the majority of rhinos live in South Africa, and the increase in poaching there has been noticeable.
"In South Africa, I think in about 2007, there was about 13 rhino poached," Neme says. "And just last year in 2016, there was over 1,000 rhino poached ... If you think about it, that amounts to about three rhino per day."
Rhinos in the wild are not the only targets. There have been rhinos targeted in zoos, reserves and rhino orphanages.
Horns at museums and collections are also being stolen. And just because those horns aren't attached to a living rhino at the time of the crime, Neme says that doesn't make the crime any less dangerous for the rhino population.
"You're really expanding the trade," Neme says. "Because when it makes its way to the final customer, others will say, 'Oh, you know, I want that too' ... A lot of the rhino horn that's being traded now has nothing to do whatsoever with any traditional medicine at all. It's really a status symbol."
In addition to the impact on rhinos, Neme points out another consequence of contributing to the market for rhino horns.
"You're also promoting criminal networks because the people who are involved in this are organized criminal networks, militia groups," Neme explains. "And that leads in turn to instability in those countries and corruption."
For those who want to get involved in working to stop the trade and poaching, Neme says just learning more about it is important, as is speaking up if you notice related activity.
Other suggestions Neme makes include talking to lawmakers about what they can do as far as wildlife law enforcement or bills dealing with the trade, and then looking for opportunities to support organizations that work on this issue.
Listen to the conversation with Neme above. Broadcast on Vermont Edition on Thursday, May 4, 2017.
For more from Vermont Edition:
Back in April 2009, Neme joined the program shortly after the release of Animal Investigators to talk about animal trafficking and related investigations. Listen to a version of that segment below (it has been edited for clarity and brevity):