A 120-year-old stuffed rhinoceros is back on display minus its horn, which was stolen during a nighttime robbery, possibly by an organized gang seeking to sell it on the Asian black market.
Museum authorities have warned that if the powdered horn is used as an aphrodisiac or other traditional medicine, it could have lethal consequences because it was preserved by the use of deadly arsenic and DDT.
Cape Town museum officials decided on Friday to reopen the mammal gallery including the white rhino, looking tatty and disheveled without its horn.
"It is a graphic reminder, not only of the modern-day risks of museum management but also of the plight faced by this endangered species in its natural habitat," said Jatti Bredekamp, chief executive officer of Iziko Museums.
Trade in rhino horn is banned as rhinos are an endangered species. But there are huge markets for poachers because it is believed to hold medicinal powers in Asia and the Middle East.
Other museums may be targets
Bredekamp said after the theft last week that "natural history museums are being targeted, as security in game reserves has been improved." There has been at least one other similar incident in South Africa.
Police are still searching for the thieves, who apparently hid in the museum as it was closing for the evening on April 12. Museum officials say they suspect a highly organized gang because only the rhino display was targeted and there was no other damage.
In February unknown perpetrators tried to smash the reinforced glass of the rhino display but at that stage it was dismissed as vandalism.
Bredekamp said the rhino was donated to the museum by British-South African businessman and colonizer Cecil John Rhodes in 1896 and was considered priceless.
Arsenic & DDT mix
Bredekamp said the thieves unknowingly had exposed themselves to more than the danger of arrest and prosecution.
Before the mid-20th century, taxidermy mounts were prepared by being soaked in arsenic and preserved from insect infestation through regular applications of DDT, which stay toxic even after decades.
Bredekamp said if the stolen horn did end up on the Asian market to be used as an aphrodisiac, it would have "unforeseen consequences."