Environment First Look

Poachers shoot and kill a rhino ... outside Paris

In what is thought to be the first time in Europe that a rhinoceros in captivity has been poached, poachers broke into a zoo in Thoiry, France, shot and killed a 4-year-old male rhino, and sawed off its horn.

White rhinoceros Bruno is seen in his enclosure at Thoiry zoo and wildlife park, about 30 miles west of Paris on Tuesday, a day after poachers broke into the zoo and shot dead a 5-year-old male white rhino named Vince and sawed off his horn.
Christian Hartmann/Reuters
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The challenges of protecting rhinos from poaching in the wild are well-documented. But the unprecedented killing of a captive rhino in Europe may suggest that these challenges do not end at the zoo gates.

Four-year-old Vince, a white rhinoceros, was found dead in his enclosure at the Thoiry Zoo, west of Paris, on Tuesday. He had been shot in the head and his large horn removed with a chainsaw. According to police, the poachers fled before they could completely remove the second horn, either because they were disturbed or because their equipment failed, The Guardian reported.

The attack, believed to be the first such instance in Europe, points to the high incentives for poaching rhino horns. For some, the attack is a call to action. Something similar could happen again in the future, they suggest, and it’s vital that zoos and communities guard against that possibility.

“Animal parks throughout Europe have been put on alert to look out,” Paul de La Panouse, former historic director of the African enclosure at Thoiry zoo, told French journalists, The Guardian reported. “[T]o get into these places they have to climb 3.5 metre fences, go through padlocked doors. It’s not easy to kill a rhino weighing several tonnes just like that. It’s a job for professionals.”

Rhinos have long been poached for their horns, largely to supply demand in Asia, where it is believed that rhino horn has medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. In the face of diminishing rhino populations – there are an estimated 29,000 left in the wild – conservationists have undertaken an array of efforts to protect them. 

Sudan, the last male Northern white rhinoceros who lives at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, has an armed security detail, and has had part of his horn removed to deter poachers. Some rhinos have been fitted with body cams linked to GPS collars, alerting anti-poaching teams within moments of an event and ideally catching the poachers red-handed. Pembient, a biotech company, is taking an economic approach, producing cheap 3-D printed horns from a dried powder of keratin and rhino DNA in order to undercut poachers and force them out of the market. And public awareness campaigns in China and Vietnam are working to make buying rhino horn socially unacceptable.

“Advertisers will tell you that you win the heart and the mind follows,” Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid, a San Francisco-based organization responsible for one of these campaigns, previously told The Christian Science Monitor’s Lonnie Shekhtman.

The approach uses a range of media to reduce interest in rhino horn by explaining that it is primarily made of keratin, a protein also found in human hair and nails. The approach seems to be working: Surveys indicate that between 2012 and 2014, the proportion of Chinese who believed that rhino horn had medicinal properties dropped by nearly a quarter.

Such public awareness efforts may provide a partial answer to addressing poaching in zoos, too. According to detectives working on Vince’s case, there is an established trade in illegally poached horn between France and Asia. And zoos may find themselves implementing other anti-poaching systems to fill any gaps in the animal-protection systems they already have, which include cameras, gates, and staff presence.

Vince was born in September 2012 at Burgers’ Zoo in the Netherlands. He arrived in Paris in March 2015 with Bruno, another rhino. Both Bruno and Gracie, the zoo’s third rhino, “escaped the massacre,” the zoo said on Facebook.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.