19/04/2013 13:39 BST | Updated 19/06/2013 06:12 BST

Rhino Horn: Myth and Legend

Masked men believed to be members of an 'Irish Gypsy gang' have stolen a number of stuffed rhinoceros heads and their valuable horns from the warehouse of Ireland's National Museum according to Irish police reports.

Barely a week goes by without the theft of rhino horn from a European or North American museum. Not a beautifully carved Chinese Qing Dynasty rhino horn libation cup, but just the plain old horn. Why? - to capitalise on the folkloric belief in Asia that powdered rhino horn has medicinal qualities. It doesn't. It's a bit of a dead animal, but thanks to this lingering medieval superstition the market value by weight of rhino horn now exceeds gold, cocaine and other luxury commodities.

The UK's National Wildlife Crime Unit is now calling on museums and other institutions holding rhino horns to provide samples for a DNA database. It would be more sensible to simply remove them from display altogether, but so wedded are our museums to an anachronistic Enlightenment mindset that this is unlikely to happen. The rhino horn, the dodo, the duck-billed platypus, mermaids' teeth, blood said to have rained on the Isle of Wight - the museum has never shaken free of the romance of the princely Cabinet of Curiosities.

The real problem, of course, is not rhino horn thefts from museums. It's rhinos being slaughtered for their horns.

Like the Dr No mythology that lingers around art theft, media reporting of rhino thefts doesn't help. Contrary to popular belief, rhino horn is not in common use as an aphrodisiac in Asia, although a few members of the wealthy business élite continue to see it as an exotic alternative to Viagra. This is doubtless more to do with the fact that it's expensive... and thus fashionable.

Rhino horn is, however, a treasured ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in which it is used to reduce fever. But as most of us know, TCM is medieval bunkum. Rhino horn is made of keratin, which is the same as human hair or fingernails. Ever tried eating your own hair to reduce a fever? No, of course not.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the mounted rhino horn may have justified its inclusion in the Wunderkammer, or Cabinets of Curiosities assembled by most self-respecting European princes. During the superstitious pre-Enlightenment culture of seventeenth century Europe, rhino's horn, originating as it did from the fearsome, armour-plated beast drawn so exquisitely by Albrecht Dürer exerted similar fascination to bezoars, mermaids' teeth, and myriad other wondrous things in the princely cabinet. In time, those weird collections evolved into the 'Universal' or 'Encyclopaedic' museums we have today.

However, as the directors of these museums continue to remind us, we are still living through the Enlightenment (I know, just look around you - it's a laughable notion, isn't it?). The Age of Enlightenment was supposed to have swept away medieval superstition and replaced it with rational thought. What's rational about a mouldy old rhino horn nailed to a mahogany shield in a tiny provincial museum in Surrey, or gathering dust in an Irish warehouse?

Precisely what educational significance can a mounted rhino horn have for the gentle denizens of Dublin, Haslemere, or Norwich, all of which have suffered rhino horn thefts in recent months. Don't they get David Attenborough documentaries in Surrey? National Geographic? The Discovery Channel? The internet? Perhaps not.

I can see them now, weeping into their Waitrose shopping trolleys at the cruel theft of the beloved rhino horn from their local museum. Meanwhile, somewhere in the basement restaurant of a brand new poured concrete metropolis in mainland China a group of priapic, freshly-minted billionaires stir the Haslemere horn into their rice wine as the karaoke machine belts out James Brown's It's a Man's World.

The theft of rhino horns from Western museums is driven by a mixture of medieval superstition and a booming Chinese economy. Western economies are no longer booming, but keeping rhino horns in our museums is as medieval as it gets. Get rid of them.

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