On February 9, agents busted an illegal rhino horn smuggling ring – not in Namibia or South Africa, but in five US states.
Let’s hear it for the Transportation Security Administration – those unsmiling folks who make your life miserable at airport security checkpoints. It was two Long Beach California TSA officials who detained Wade Steffen of Hico, Texas, his wife Molly and his mother after discovering $20,000 in $100-bill bundles in Molly Steffen’s purse. An extended search revealed $337,000 in the trio’s carry-on luggage. The loot wasn’t from a bank robbery or bribery attempt; it was the ill-gotten gains from the sale of sawed-off rhinoceros horns on the international black market.
The airport arrests forced into the open an ongoing undercover sting dubbed “Operation Crash” (the term for a herd of rhinoceroses) – which by that point had been in the works for 18 months. The following day special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations and other local law enforcement officers swooped down on the rest of the ring resulting in the seizure of 37 rhino horns, over $1 million in cash, and $1 million in Rolex watches, gold bars, and diamonds. Of all the swag, the most valuable commodity pound for pound are the rhino horns which bring as much as $20,000 to $25,000 a pound when sold as medicine in China and especially Viet Nam. A pair of rhino horns can fetch $50,000 to $100,000 on the black market. And an end product like a libation cup can bring up to $300,000.
In addition to Steffen, six more people were arrested – four of whom were from the Los Angeles area. The ring – which is believed to have trafficked in rhino horns for years – worked with an auction house in Missouri that specialized in selling live and stuffed exotic animals. Antiques expert David Hausman was charged in U.S. District Court in Manhattan with illegally trafficking rhinoceros horns and with creating false documents to conceal the illegal nature of the transaction, prosecutors said. And in New Jersey, Amir Even-Ezra was arrested Feb. 18 on a felony trafficking charge after purchasing rhino horns from a New York resident in New Jersey. And Jin Zhao Feng, a Chinese national, was arrested on suspicion of overseeing the shipment of dozens of rhino horns from the U.S. to China. The accused were charged with four counts of rhino horn trafficking in violation of federal laws protecting rare and endangered species. If convicted, the accused face up to five years confinement in federal prison. “These individuals conspired to bring rhino horns from all over the country to a main port here in Los Angeles,” said U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte. “where they were to connect with a Chinese national who would export those rhino horns to China at enormous profits.”
New sources for sawed-off rhino horn. Same tragic consequences.
Other surprising sources for rhino horn in America are antique shops and the walls of big game hunters. In Europe, nature exhibits at museums have been targeted by members of organized crime syndicates who hack off the horns of stuffed rhinos. This development marks a new turn in the illegal rhino horn trade. Usually, it is live rhinos in African wildlife preserves, which are left to die an agonizing death after their horns are sawed off at the stump by poachers. From 2009 to the present, some 800 rhinos were slaughtered for their horns in South Africa. And on the day of this posting, four South African Park officials have been arrested for killing two rhinos in Kruger National Park.
Does rhino horn actually have any healing power? The answer is unequivocally NO. Studies by pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche and the Zoological Society of London have reported that there is absolutely no medicinal value in rhino horn, which contains keratin, the same type of protein that makes up hair and fingernails. But try telling that to members of a culture that has believed in the horn’s magic for thousands of years. It has traditionally been used to treat such conditions as typhoid fever, convulsions and carbuncles. In recent years it has come to be known as a cure for cancer. Not only is there no truth to those claim, but application and ingestion of the pulverized horn has led to a number of cases of illness.
The belief in the medicinal power of pulverized rhino horn persists despite campaigns and bans like the 1993 international trade ban initiated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), which counted 175 member countries and regions among its signers. For a time, the ban appeared to reduce the illegal rhino horn trade to enforceable levels. But now that go-getter nations like China and Vietnam have developed global trade networks with a thriving black market underbelly, the emerging wealthy class in Asia can easily circumvent restrictions to secure this symbol of wealth and status.
For now, though, let’s view the success of Operation Crash as a cause for celebration. In the words U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe, “By taking out this ring of rhino horn traffickers, we have shut down a major source of black market horn and dealt a serious blow to rhino horn smuggling both in the U.S. and globally.”