In museums across Europe, rhinoceros horns have been the target of thieves at least 30 times this year, as they go for $99,000 per kilo. Europe NBC's Jim Maceda reports.
LONDON — The demand for rhino horn in Asia, where some see its ground-up powder as an aphrodisiac and even cancer-curing medicine, has driven prices to nearly $50,000 a pound — and with it a new type of crime: thieves breaking into museums and auction houses to tear the horns off stuffed specimens.
At least 30 such thefts have taken place across Europe in the last year. The latest, on Tuesday at a hunting museum in Paris, saw thieves use a stun gas on two guards to facilitate the theft.
"The style of the offenses has taken us by surprise and the fact that they're still continuing today," Scotland Yard Detective Ian Lawson told NBC News after Tuesday's heist.
The heists are happening as poachers, motivated by the same profit, are slaughtering rhinos in Africa and Asia.
Bobby Yip / Reuters
Confiscated rhino horns, ivory chopsticks and ivory bracelets are shown in Hong Kong on Nov. 15.
Last month, Hong Kong confiscated 33 rhino horns, as well as 758 chopsticks and 127 bracelets made from elephant ivory, worth $2.2 million — its biggest seizure of smuggled endangered species products. The items were shipped from Cape Town, South Africa.
More South African rhinos were poached — 341 — in the first 10 months of 2011 than in all of 2010, which was a record poaching year with 333 animals lost. The International Rhino Federation project is for parks in South Africa and neighboring Zimbabwe, which also has seen increased poaching.
"We're losing animals like crazy," Michael Knight, head of park planning and development for South Africa's national parks department, recently told The Associated Press. "But the prosecutions are falling way behind."
Last month, experts declared that Africa's Western Black Rhino was "officially extinct." The Northern White Rhino of central Africa was declared "possibly extinct" in the wild and Vietnam's Javan Rhino "probably extinct."
About 100,000 Eastern Black Rhino roamed the continent at the beginning of the 20th century, before their numbers plummeted to just 1,500 in the 1960s. Today, about 4,500 exist thanks to intesive breeding and conservation efforts.
Animal activists, meanwhile, are trying to spread the word in Asia that rhino horn has no magical powers.
"It's exactly the same protein as found in our hair and in our fingernails, so you might was well chew your own off or somebody else's," Cathy Dean of Save the Rhino told NBC.
NBC's Jim Maceda, msnbc.com's Miguel Llanos and The Associated Press contributed to this report.