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Ringleader admits smuggling $4.5M of rhinoceros horns through Bergen, elsewhere

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: The ringleader of a global ring with Little Ferry and Ridgefield connections that trafficked in endangered black rhinoceros horns – believed to cure cancer and have aphrodisiac qualities – admitted his role in the crimes today in federal court in Newark.

Zhifei Li, a 29-year-old Chinese national who was indicted by federal grand juries in both Newark and Miami for international smuggling of rhinoceros horns, pleaded guilty to 11 of the charges.

U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman said 30 rhinoceros horns and several objects made from rhino horn and elephant ivory worth more than $4.5 million were smuggled from the United States to China by the ring.

“The brutality of animal poaching, wherever it occurs, feeds the demand of a multibillion-dollar illegal international market,” Fishman said.

“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,” Fishman added.

Federal agents busted Li and a group of co-conspirators through an investigation dubbed “Operation Crash.”

The government had help from an unindicted co-conspirator who operated out of Little Ferry, where four of the deals went down, and Ridgefield, where one occurred, according to the New Jersey indictment.

Federal authorities also said that Li, while attending an Original Miami Beach Antique Show in January, bought two endangered black rhinoceros horns from an undercover U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service agent in a Miami Beach hotel room for $59,000.

Li “asked if the undercover officer could procure additional rhinoceros horns and mail them to his company in Hong Kong,” Fishman said.

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 U.S. attorney said.

Fishman also said:

“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.”

South African authorities earlier this year said the number of rhinoceros killed by poachers had dramatically increased, driven by demand.

Some fetch the same as the U.S. street value of cocaine.

Federal agents made the first series of arrests in “Operation Crash” in early 2012, seizing $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 taxi-dermied 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.

Last year, a brazen gang of four ripped a rhino head from the wall of a German museum 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 the first raids in “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.

According to the indictment filed in Newark, Li “conspired to smuggle more than 20 raw rhinoceros horns from the United States to Hong Kong in 2011 and 2012.

“Li wired hundreds of thousands of dollars over at least a year to a co-conspirator in the United States to fund purchases of rhinoceros horns,” te indictment says.

Federal authorities said Li’s co-conspirator smuggled the rhino horns in porcelain vases mailed to Hong Kong and China, in an effort to evade detection by U.S. officials.

“Li and his co-conspirator bought many of the horns in New Jersey from other members of the conspiracy,” the indictment says.

Li, who was arrested in January on charges previously filed in New Jersey, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Miami a month later.

“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.

“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.

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.

The investigation resulting in the charges were conducted by the Special Investigations Unit of the FWS Office of Law Enforcement, with assistance from the Department of Homeland Security, Fishman said.

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