A black rhinoceros horn stolen from a locked room at the University of Vermont is likely destined for the international black market, said a law enforcement agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has worked on rhino horn trafficking cases in the United States and Europe.
Special agent Robert Rothe said Wednesday a drill was used to disable a lock on the door at the university’s Torrey Hall in Burlington, where the black rhino horn had been hanging for decades. The theft was discovered April 27.
The Wildlife Service and the university are offering a $3,000 reward for the return of the horn and the identity of the person or people who took it.
“My immediate impression is that someone went through some great trouble to target this thing and obtain it,” said Rothe, who once worked on Operation Crash, which focuses on the illegal trade in rhinoceros horns and elephant tusks.
He said he’d never seen a case in the United States like the theft from the University of Vermont, although he had seen such cases in Europe. But given the demand for rhino horns and their high value he said he was not surprised by the theft.
The criminal investigation is being carried out by university police, he said.
Black rhinos are native to eastern and southern Africa. The International Rhino Foundation estimates that since 1970 the population in the wild has dropped from about 65,000 to about 5,000.
Rhino horns are used in some traditional Asian medicines and are viewed as aphrodisiacs. They’re also used as trophies, collectors’ items or good luck charms.
Rothe said it would be difficult to estimate the value of the horn because he had never seen it, but a New York indictment in a separate case in February alleged a conspiracy to smuggle 15 rhinoceros horns valued at $2.4 million, which would be about $160,000 each.
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“It’s obviously very, very valuable if it makes its way to Asia,” he said.
The university said the horn was acquired in about 1900, although no one is sure how it got to Burlington. It was part of the Zadock Thompson Natural History Collections, the state’s zoological research collection.
While Torrey Hall has a teaching lab in the basement, the collection, with more than 250,000 samples, is used for teaching and scholarship and is not open to the public.
A zoology and natural history professor at the university, Bill Kilpatrick, said that with modern research techniques a lot could be learned about the species from the horn but any such knowledge is lost if the horn is sold illegally.
“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,” Kilpatrick said.