The brazen killing of a young white rhinoceros in a zoo outside Paris was probably carried out by organized crime and showed the sort of intricate planning that usually goes into art heists, French police said Wednesday.
Authorities are attempting to track down the poachers who broke into the private zoo, killed the rhino and sawed off its horn.
In what officials say is the first crime of its kind in Europe, the intruders smashed through a secured gate at the Thoiry animal park, as well as two other locked doors monitored by security cameras, overnight on Monday. Five members of zoo staff live at the animal reserve, about 30 miles west of Paris, but none reported hearing gunshots.
On Tuesday morning, shocked zookeepers found the dead animal, named Vince, a 4-year-old who had been shot several times in the head. His large horn had been hacked off with a chainsaw. The poachers had begun removing the smaller horn but fled before finishing the task.
In an autopsy Wednesday, two large caliber bullets were removed from the animal's head. They were sent to the French gendarmerie's criminal research institute for analysis.
On the zoo's Facebook page, the owners described the slaughter as a "tragic act of barbarity." Vince, who arrived at Thoiry in 2015 from a zoo in Holland where he was born at the end of 2012, shared his enclosure with a second male rhino, Bruno, age 5, and a female one, Gracie, 37.
The surviving pair "escaped the massacre" and were unharmed, the zoo added.
"Vince was found this morning by the keeper who was very attached to him and is deeply upset. This odious act was carried out even though there were five staff members living on site and security cameras," read the Facebook announcement.
It said the animal's second horn had been partially cut, "leaving us to think the criminals were disturbed or their equipment failed."
Colomba de La Panouse-Turnbull, deputy general director of the zoo, said the two remaining rhinos were subdued and seemed aware of the trauma.
"For sure, it must have been very harrowing for them to hear the gunshot and the sawing during the night of the attack," La Panouse-Turnbull told Le Parisien newspaper.
"We are extremely shocked and upset: It's supposed to be a sanctuary for the animals here."
French police said the rhino's horn would probably be sold on the black market for up to $55,000 to buyers in Asia — probably China or Vietnam — where it will be ground down and used for its supposed aphrodisiac or cancer-curing qualities. Rhinoceros horn is often referred to as ivory when it is in fact made of keratin, like human fingernails.
A police spokesperson told Agence France-Presse that it was a "very complicated, very unusual case" and that the eight-inch horn had probably been stolen to order.
"It looks like organized crime. There's probably a network behind the thieves … and a good chance that the horn was sold even before it was stolen, as happens with paintings. We have to act quickly or in three days the horn is already in China," an unidentified police source told the news agency.
Thoiry director Thierry Duguet told journalists Wednesday that the zoo had received hundreds of "calls from people around the world offering support."
Vince was a southern white rhinoceros, a subspecies of the endangered white rhino species, one of the largest and heaviest of the world's land animals. The species, which lives across southern Africa, was driven to near extinction in the 20th century through poaching, but its numbers have reportedly risen to about 21,000 animals in the wild today.
Willsher is a special correspondent.