Police are visiting every zoo and wildlife park in the UK that houses rhinos to offer security advice after poachers shot dead a white rhinoceros and sawed off its horn at a zoo in France.
The head of Britain’s National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) said the French attack, the first of its kind in Europe, was a wake-up call, and urgent security checks needed to be made to protect the 111 rhinos in captivity in the UK.
The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) said it has a herd of greater one-horned rhinos and white rhinos at Whipsnade zoo in Bedfordshire and was increasing security patrols following the French attack.
“These animals are kept in secure enclosures guarded by full-time security teams, who also conduct regular patrols across the zoo,” a spokesman said. Double-layered barriers and electric fences were already in place.
“Our security teams at ZSL London zoo and ZSL Whipsnade zoo are aware of this tragic incident and will be increasing their on-site patrols.”
The chief executive of Chester zoo, Dr Mark Pilgrim, said the killing was a “devastating new development in the rhino poaching crisis”. He said the zoo had “sadly been aware of this threat for some time”. “As a result, we have comprehensive CCTV across the zoo, including focus on our rhino habitats, monitored 24 hours a day by an expert on-site security team.”
Vince, a four-year-old male southern white rhinoceros, was found dead at Thoiry zoo outside Paris on Tuesday morning. He had been shot three times in the head and his 20cm (8in) horn removed with a chainsaw. The attack was denounced by the zoo as “extremely shocking” and “an act of extreme violence”.
Ch Insp Martin Sims, head of the NWCU, working with the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (Biaza), said police officers were in the process of visiting premises to “discuss security, and any reassurance or patrolling that needs doing”.
Sims said the use of firearms meant it was not just the animals’ safety that was of concern, but also the safety of the workforce.
Poachers broke into Thoiry zoo late at night, going through a perimeter fence and entering Vince’s cage. The horn could earn up to £35,000 on the black market, which is driven by demand in China and Vietnam where rhino horn is considered an aphrodisiac.
Poachers in Africa killed 1,338 rhinoceroses in 2015, the sixth year the number had increased, and over the past eight years an estimated quarter of the world’s rhinoceros population has been killed.
The NWCU warned in 2010 about the need for increased security for museums and zoos where there were exhibits of rhino horn. “Sadly, now, a live rhino has been killed,” said Sims.
David Williams-Mitchell, from the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (Eaza), said members had been “alive to this risk for some time” following the increase in poaching in Africa and the Indian sub-continent.
“Therefore, their security is already very high. I think one has to be realistic that when you have armed gangs with guns and chainsaws, who are able to break in through fairly serious security measures, then there isn’t a whole lot we can do.”
Vince’s slaughter by poachers was the first at a European facility “and we have never heard of a case of it happening anywhere else in the world either,” he said.
Eaza members were in “absolute shock, as you can imagine”.
The threat had been on Eaza’s radar since the beginning of the poaching epidemic, he said. “Obviously we realise that rhino horn costs upwards of €50,000 [£43,000] a kilo, and the issue of security had been discussed by the Taxon Advisory Group.”
Eaza advice had been “to have every possible security”, he said, “to ensure people cannot get on to the site in the first place. To have cameras, particularly surveillance cameras. Obviously, every institution is different, so there are different needs for different places.
“All of our members who hold rhino are deeply aware of the situation in the wild. It is shocking, wherever it happens. The fact that it has happened in Europe … it is, with hindsight, unsurprising that somebody would have a go. What really needs to happen is we need to reduce the demand for it.”