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Federal agents smash ring that smuggled rhino horns

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

SPECIAL REPORT: Federal authorities smashed a global ring that trafficked in endangered black rhinoceros horn – believed to cure cancer and have aphrodisiac qualities – with a series of arrests nationwide. They also seized $2 million in cash, diamonds, Rolex watches and gold ingots, along with 37 horns shipped to, among other places, nail salons.

The accused smugglers targeted rhinos, which are an endangered species, for buyers who believe the horns cure cancer, federal authorities said (The government estimates there are only 30,000 or so genuine rhinos remaining, with hundreds of sub species).

One of them, an antiques dealer, was seen sawing off the horns of a taxidermied rhino head in the parking lot of an Illinois hotel after he bought it from an undercover agent, a federal complaint says.

Another brought a scale and envelopes filled with cash to a New Jersey Turnpike service station after phone calls and an exchange of emailed photos led to the arranged sale of two black rhino horns for $35,000 ($5,000 per pound), according to a complaint filed by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent in Newark.

Today’s news follows the weekend report of a brazen theft from a German museum, where a gang of four ripped a rhino head from a wall and made off with the horns. The crew struck again in England but were fended off by museum staff.

Many of the horns intercepted by the U.S. government ended up in Vietnam and China before an 18-month undercover investigation led to a series of raids as part of “Operation Crash,” led by the Justice Department and Department of the Interior, along with other federal and local law enforcement agencies that include ICE and the IRS.

The arrests began two weeks ago, when an alleged trafficker and his family were stopped at Long Beach Airport in California with $337,000 in their luggage, Justice Department officials said. Agents intercepted nearly 20 shipments made by him and an exotic animals auction house owner, they said.

The probe led to the arrest last night of a Chinese national accused of overseeing the shipments from the United States to China.

“The rhino is an animal of prehistoric origin that is facing possible extinction because of an illegal trade for its horns on the black market that is driven by greed,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice.

In U.S. District Court in Manhattan, antiques expert David Hausman was also charged with illegally trafficking rhinoceros horns and with creating false documents to conceal the illegal nature of the transaction. Authorities said he was seen sawing off the horns of the taxidermied rhino in Illinois.

“Rhino horn traffickers continue to fuel the illegal demand for horn, demand that has led to hundreds of rhino deaths and put the white and black rhino in danger of extinction in the wild,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.  “These arrests have dealt a serious blow to rhino horn smuggling but represent only the beginning of a significant crackdown on this illegal trade.”

According to the U.S. Justice Department:

Rhinoceros are an herbivore species of prehistoric origin and one of the largest remaining mega-fauna on earth.  All species of rhinoceros are protected under U.S. and international law.  All black rhinoceros species are endangered.  Rhino horns are composed of keratin, the same type of protein that makes up hair and fingernails.

Rhinoceros horn is a highly valued and sought-after commodity despite the fact that international trade has been largely banned since 1976.  The demand for rhinoceros horn, which is used by some cultures for ornamental carvings, good luck charms or alleged medicinal purposes, has resulted in a thriving black market – a market that has escalated in recent years in both volume and per-unit profit.

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