CSI Stuffed Rhino – A Day at the Museum


ACPD25 Sampling museum black rhino horn for DNA analysisLast week we were welcomed into Glasgow Museums Resource Centre in Scotland on an unusual mission. We were there to photograph staff taking DNA samples of rhino horn from stuffed animals to help in the fight against rhino horn thefts from museums in the UK and across Europe.

We felt a bit like extras from the US sci-fi TV show ‘Warehouse 13’ as we were ushered into the huge ‘pods’ where a whole ark of intriguing natural history specimens are stored. Watched by what seemed like hundreds of glass eyes Richard Sutcliffe, research manager for natural sciences, and Laurence Simmen, conservator, natural history, carefully drilled out small samples of rhino horn from a range of exhibits held in the storage facility using specially-developed DNA sampling kits.

ACPD15 Sampling museum rhino horn for DNA analysisThese samples will go into a unique new database of DNA samples from museum-held rhino horn that’s being pioneered by specialist in wildlife DNA forensics, Dr Lucy Webster, on behalf of the Scottish government.

‘We’re doing this to safeguard our rhino horn specimens,’ said Richard Sutcliffe. ‘If by any ill luck they get stolen in the future, we’ll be able to identify them because we’re supporting this national scheme to try to identify all the rhino horns in museums in the UK and further afield.’

Earlier this year thieves stole rhino heads and horns with a street value of more than £400,000 from the archives of a Dublin museum. In the past two years there have been more than 20 criminal incidents involving rhino horn in the UK.

ACPD23 Sampling museum rhino horn for DNA analysisPolice inspector Nevin Hunter who heads the UK’s National Wildlife Crime Unit welcomed the initiative and told Project African Rhino how the scheme is expected to play a key part in fighting rhino horn crime: ‘This is a really good preventive measure that could deter people from attacking museums, and live rhinos,’ he told us.

‘In addition if any of the authorities in Hong Kong or wherever seize rhino horn that’s been chopped up we can prove where that rhino horn has come from, potentially identifying crime and who has been involved. But essentially it’s a huge preventive issue.’

He went on to explain that while South Africa already has a DNA scheme for collecting rhino horn samples at crime scenes (see our earlier blog post of August 7, 2012) one of the issues with this is that their scientific standard, as yet, would not stand up in a European court from a validation point of view.

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