Cash in the Attic?

The breadcrumb trail saw us heading north of the border for the second time in as many weeks in the search of all things African rhino. It seems strange to be headed for Scotland in pursuit of our rhino story for this project, rather than our usual stomping ground of southern Africa, but the scramble for rhino horn isn’t confined simply to the African bush. It’s an issue that’s reaching into every corner of the globe, throwing up a host of other problems some of which you wouldn’t at first imagine.

We meet Shona Sinclair in the car park of a quiet Borders village. She’s area curator for Scottish Borders Council and has arranged to take us to a secret location where the things we’ve come to see and photograph are being securely held in a special strong-room.  Half an hour later and we’re following her and an assistant down a warren of corridors.  Wearing soft cotton gloves to handle the items they disappear into the strong-room before emerging with two extremely impressive, but incredibly dirty, antique rhino horns mounted as trophies.

They’re so grimy it looks like they’ve been sprayed with a coating of brownish-grey, matt powder.  Even in this state, and in this odd location, you can’t help but wonder about the stunning animals they must have once belonged to and ponder the sad history they embody.

Shona explains the horns were found recently in the attic of a local museum among a haul of stuffed animal trophies that had been long forgotten and left to gather dust for about 80 years.  She doesn’t know much about them, but has managed to find out they were mounted by a renowned Victorian taxidermist called Rowland Ward, probably in the late 1800s.

The problem is she’s now completely stumped about what to do with these ironically valuable yet worthless pieces that seem so out of time. With rhino horn fetching as much $65,000 dollars on the black market and a spate of rhino horn thefts from museums in recent months, police are urging that rhino horns be removed from public display across Europe and replaced with fakes to deter the criminal gangs involved.

‘The horns are not the sort of thing that fit with our collection these days anyway,’ she says. ‘I’m not sure what we can do with them, but I’ll have to write a report for the councillors to decide on.’

‘There’s a formal museum transfer process where they could be offered to other museums or scientific collections, but who’s going to want them in this climate?’ she adds.

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