Rathkeale traveller-traders suspects behind a series Rhino horn thefts across Europe.

The Dead Zoo Gang

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A ‘Dead Zoo’ traveller gang is snatching antique rhino horns across Europe in a bizarre crime-spree worth millions.

Rogue antique dealers connected to Irish traveller traders from Rathkeale are suspects behind a series of thefts from museums in Germany, Italy and the UK.

This week staff members at the Natural History Museum in Dublin were put on alert in the wake of the smash-and-grabs.

The museum, for years dubbed the ‘Dead Zoo’, has thousands of exhibits on display, including three full-sized stuffed rhinos.

Powdered rhino horn can sell for €60,000 a kilo on the Chinese medicine market – almost twice the price of gold.


The gang has targeted natural history museums and education centres in a string of raids in Germany, Italy and the UK.

A member of the Rathkeale traveller-trader families has been singled out as one the prime organisers, according to Sunday World sources.

“It’s all the talk in Rathkeale, about who is behind it,” a source told the Sunday World.

“They’re going mad to get their hands on rhino horns,” he added.

A Chinese and an English dealer, both based in the UK, have dealt with the Rathkeale-linked gang, according to Sunday World sources.

Two weeks ago staff at Bamberg’s Natural History Museum in Germany found a glass case had been broken open and an 8-inch horn weighing a kilo was gone.

Then a hunting museum in Gifhorn, near the city of Wolfsburg, reported a two-horned stuffed rhino – once shot by a big-game stalker – lost his horns last Saturday week .

It was reported that two men, aged about 40, bought entry tickets, broke off both horns and ran away with them.

Hamburg’s zoology museum said last week a burglar broke in after-hours and took six horns, including those of a rare Asian species.

Last Wednesday week three horns were stolen from the La Specola Museum in Italy, which is owned and run by the University of Florence.

Burglars also broke into the Educational Museum in Haslemere, Surrey, in the early hours of May 27 before fleeing after setting off an alarm.

The rhino head was the only item stolen.

The UK’s Museum Association has urged museums to remove all rhino horn from display.

Haslemere Museum has removed its remaining rhino heads from the premises following the theft, and its website states it will no longer store rhino material.

The Horniman Museum in London has also taken all rhino horns off display until it can reassess its security arrangements.

At the Natural History Museum in Dublin there are half-a-dozen rhino heads on display.

All of them are within hand’s reach and none are behind the glass display cabinets.

One full size rhino on display has an information sign explaining how rhinos horns have become endangered because demand for their use in ceremonial daggers and in traditional Chinese medicine.

Keeper at the museum, Nigel

Monaghan said that they are aware of the spate of thefts at museums in Europe.

“All museums are aware rhino horn has increased in value. But it only has a high value in the Far East,” he said.


He warned that it would have been standard practice to preserve rhino horns using a variety of chemicals, including arsenic.

 “It has been proven that they are of absolutely no medical value whatsoever,” he added.

Garda crime prevention officers this week visited the Natural History Museum to warn staff about the activities of the dead zoo gang.

Because rhinos are an endangered species, it is a criminal offence to trade in their horns.

However, according to EU regulations, rhino horns shaped before 1947 can be legally traded as antiques. As a result, smugglers have switched to sourcing antique

horns, some even dating from the 19th century to cash in on the illegal trade.

The prime suspect in the robberies became wealthy thanks to his trading across international borders, as well as through property investments.

Two Rathkealers are currently serving jail sentences in the United States after they were caught trying to buy rhino horn from an undercover agent.

Richard ‘Kerry’ O’Brien junior and his brother-in-law Michael Hegarty were sentenced to six months at a Federal Court hearing in Denver Colorado.

A judge at the US District Court in Denver also ordered the seizure of the €12,000 they paid to an undercover federal agent for the rhino horns last year.

At previous court hearings it emerged how O’Brien and Hegarty turned up to buy the rhino horns after a ‘John O’Sullivan’ responded to an on-line advert.

The seller turned out to be an informant working for the US Fish and Wildlife Service and handed over a worthless buffalo horn to the pair.

Three other Rathkeale men, according to Sunday World sources, were arrested during a bid to smuggle rhino horns through Shannon airport in January 2010.

The haul at the time was one of the biggest seizures valued at €500,000 and it was the first such discovery in Ireland.

There have been no convictions as a result of that haul.

The price of rhino horn has soared in recent months and it has been noted at auctions, where 19th century mounted rhino heads or even entire stuffed animals have been sold.


Eamon Dillon, Sunday World, 19 June 2020

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