Rhino smuggling kingpin busted

Zhifei Li, the owner of an antique business in China, pleaded guilty today to being the organizer of an illegal wildlife smuggling conspiracy in which 30 rhinoceros horns and numerous objects made from rhino horn and elephant ivory worth more than $4.5 million were smuggled from the United States to China.

The guilty plea was announced by Paul J. Fishman, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey; Robert G. Dreher, the Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice; Wifredo A. Ferrer, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, and Dan Ashe, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

“The brutality of animal poaching, wherever it occurs, feeds the demand of a multibillion-dollar illegal international market,” said U.S. Attorney Fishman. “As a major hub of international commerce through our ports and busy airport, the District of New Jersey plays an important role in curbing the escalation of this devastating trade. Zhifei Li’s conviction is a warning to those who would be lured by the profits of dealing in cruelty.”

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Li, 29, of Shandong, China, the owner of Overseas Treasure Finding in Shandong, pleaded guilty today before U.S. District Judge Esther Salas in Newark, N.J., to a total of 11 counts: one count of conspiracy to smuggle and violate the Lacey Act; seven counts of smuggling; one count of illegal wildlife trafficking in violation of the Lacey Act; and two counts of making false wildlife documents.

Li was arrested in Florida in January 2013 on federal charges brought under seal in New Jersey and shortly after arriving in the country. Before he was arrested, he purchased two endangered black rhinoceros horns from an undercover USFWS agent in a Miami Beach hotel room for $59,000 while attending an antique show. Li was arrested as part of “Operation Crash” – a nationwide effort led by the USFWS and the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute those involved in the black market trade of rhinoceros horns and other protected species.

In papers filed in Newark federal court, Li admitted that he was the “boss” of three antique dealers in the United States whom he paid to help obtain wildlife items and smuggle them to him via Hong Kong. One of those individuals was Qiang Wang, aka “Jeffrey Wang,” who was sentenced to 37 months in prison on Dec. 5, 2013, in the Southern District Of New York. Li played a leadership and organizational role in the smuggling conspiracy by arranging for financing to pay for the wildlife, purchasing and negotiating the price, directing how to smuggle the items out of the United States, and obtaining the assistance of additional collaborators in Hong Kong to receive the smuggled goods and then smuggle them to him in mainland China.

“The take-down of the Li smuggling ring is an important development in our effort to enforce wildlife protection laws. Rhino horn can sell for more than gold and is just as rare, but rhino horn and elephant ivory are more than mere commodities. Each illegally traded horn or tusk represents a dead animal, poaching, bribery, smuggling and organized crime,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Dreher. ”The Justice Department will continue to vigorously enforce the law designed to protect wildlife. This is a continuing investigation.”

“The illegal trade in rhino horn has devastated the wild population of these magnificent animals; with the real possibility emerging that all sub-species will be extinct in the wild within our lifetimes,” said U.S. Attorney Ferrer. “Additionally, the poaching activities have cost the lives of enforcement rangers and wardens as the traffickers have resorted to greater levels of violence to feed the black market. This case reflects the seriousness with which we regard these activities and our commitment to work collectively to quash the conduct and hold the law-breakers accountable.”

“The staggering prices paid for rhino horn by criminals like Zhifei Li and his accomplices ensure that unscrupulous poachers continue to slaughter these animals, and it’s our hope that his conviction serves as a warning to other traffickers of the severe consequences they face,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Ashe. “The unparalleled greed of criminal trafficking rings like Li’s fuel the poaching epidemic that is decimating rhinoceros populations in the wild. Regardless of whether the horns he smuggled were sawed off the corpse of a rhino last year or a decade ago, each one represents the death of one of the world’s most endangered animals.”

Rhinoceros are a herbivore species of prehistoric origin and one of the largest remaining mega-fauna on earth. They have no known predators other than humans. All species of rhinoceros are protected under United States and international law. Since 1976, trade in rhinoceros horn has been regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (known as CITES), a treaty signed by over 170 countries around the world to protect fish, wildlife and plants that are or may become imperiled due to the demands of international markets.

In pleading guilty, Li admitted that he sold 30 smuggled, raw rhinoceros horns worth approximately $3 million – approximately $17,500 per pound – to factories in China where raw rhinoceros horns are carved into fake antiques known as Zuo Jiu (which means “to make it as old” in Mandarin. In China, there is a centuries old tradition of drinking from an intricately carved “libation cup” made from a rhinoceros horn. Owning or drinking from such a cup is believed by some to bring good health, and true antiques are highly prized by collectors. The escalating value of such items has resulted in an increased demand for rhinoceros horn that has helped fuel a thriving black market, including recently carved fake antiques.

Source: U.S. Department of Justice

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