The U.S. Justice Department said seven people were arrested on charges of trafficking in endangered black rhinoceros horn over the past week in Los Angeles, New York, and Newark, N.J.
Special agents of the Fish and Wildlife Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made the arrests and have issued search warrants in five states as part of “Operation Crash,” a multi-agency effort to investigate and prosecute those involved in the black market trade of endangered rhinoceros horn.
In Los Angeles, Jin Zhao Feng, a Chinese national who allegedly oversaw the shipment of at least dozens of rhino horns from the United States to China, was arrested Wednesday night. Last weekend, members of an alleged U.S.-based trafficking ring that supplied rhino horns to Feng were arrested after being charged with conspiracy and violations of the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act for purchasing rhino horns from various suppliers in the United States.
Charges were filed against Jimmy Kha, the owner of Win Lee Corp.; his son Felix Kha; and Mai Nguyen, the owner of a nail salon where packages containing rhinoceros horns were being mailed. One of the alleged suppliers, Wade Steffen, was arrested in Hico, Texas, and charged in Los Angeles. According to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the Khas began receiving packages from Steffen and another supplier in 2010. Seventeen packages were opened under federal search warrants and 37 rhinoceros horns were found.
A search of Steffen’s luggage at the Long Beach Airport in California on Feb. 9, 2012, turned up $337,000 in cash. In additional searches conducted by Fish and Wildlife and ICE, agents found rhinoceros horns, cash, bars of gold, diamonds and Rolex watches. About $1 million in cash was seized and another $1 million seized in gold ingots.
In New Jersey, Amir Even-Ezra was arrested Feb. 18 on a felony trafficking charge in violation of the Lacey Act after buying rhino horns from an individual from New York at a service station off of the New Jersey Turnpike. Even-Ezra allegedly brought a scale for weighing the horns and envelopes of cash to the meeting, which was brokered by an individual outside of the United States, the Justice Department said.
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, both in violation of the Lacey Act. Hausman allegedly purchased a black rhinoceros mount (a taxidermied head of a rhinoceros) from an undercover officer in Illinois and was later observed sawing off the horns in a motel parking lot. Rhino horns were found in a search conducted on Feb. 18, following his arrest.
“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 Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe, in a statement Thursday. “These arrests have dealt a serious blow to rhino horn smuggling, but represent only the beginning of a significant crackdown on this illegal trade.”
Rhino horn is a highly valued and sought-after commodity despite the international trade of it has been largely banned since 1976. The demand for rhino horn, which is used by some cultures for ornamental carvings, good luck charms or alleged medicinal purposes, has resulted in an active black market – a market that has “escalated in recent years in both volume and per-unit profit,” according to the Justice Department.
If convicted, maximum penalties under these charges are up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for conspiracy; five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for Lacey Act violations; and up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine for violations of the Endangered Species Act.