Three people have been charged this week in Newark, Miami and New York City with wildlife smuggling and related charges for their alleged roles in an international rhino horn smuggling ring, the Justice Department announced today. The arrests and charges are the result of “Operation Crash”, a nationwide effort led by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute those involved in the black market trade of endangered rhinoceros horns.
Federal grand juries in Newark, N.J., and Miami have indicted Zhifei Li, in the international smuggling of rhinoceros horns. Shusen Wei, a 44 year old Chinese business executive and an associate of Li, has also been charged with offering to bribe a federal agent in the Li case. Qing Wang was charged today in a related criminal complaint in federal court in the Southern District of New York for his role in smuggling libation cups carved from rhinoceros horns from New York to Li via Hong Kong.
According to the indictment filed in Newark on Feb. 11, 2013, Li, a 28 year-old Chinese national, 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. Li’s co-conspirator smuggled the rhino horns in porcelain vases and mailed them to Hong Kong and China to a person other than Li, 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. Li was arrested in January on charges previously filed in New Jersey.
Li also was indicted on Feb. 12, 2013, in Miami on wildlife trafficking and smuggling charges. According to court records and government statements made in court, shortly after arriving in Florida in January 2013 for the Original Miami Beach Antique Show, Li purchased 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.
Also arrested on a related criminal complaint filed in Miami was Shusen Wei, a Chinese business executive, who also was attending the antique show and sharing a hotel room with Li. According to documents filed in court in Miami, Wei was interviewed by agents after Li’s arrest and admitted to knowing about Li’s smuggling activities and to purchasing rhinoceros carvings from Li that apparently had been purchased in and smuggled from the United States. After being served with a grand jury subpoena to appear in New Jersey, Wei left Miami for New York en route to China. Prior to leaving Miami, Wei allegedly asked an undercover informant to invite a FWS special agent out to dinner in Miami and offer her money to assist Li. After a series of recorded phone calls and text messages, Wei was arrested as he attempted to board a flight bound for China at JFK International Airport in New York on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2013, on charges of bribing a federal official. According to documents filed in court, Wei proposed that the undercover informant offer the agent as much as $10,000.
Qing Wang is scheduled to appear in court today to face charges in a criminal complaint in the Southern District of New York for his role in smuggling libation cups carved from rhinoceros horns from New York to Li in Hong Kong. According to documents unsealed today, Wang was one of several that purchased items in the United States for Li. In China, there is a tradition dating back centuries of intricately carved rhinoceros horn cups . Drinking from such a cup was believed to bring good health and such carvings are highly prized by collectors. Wang is alleged to have been smuggling rhinoceros horn cups as well as ivory carvings to Li in Hong Kong.
An indictment or criminal complaint contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.
Rhinoceros are an 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, and all black rhinoceros species are endangered. Since 1976, trade in rhinoceros horn has been regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty signed by more than 175 countries around the world to protect fish, wildlife and plants that are or may become imperiled due to the demands of international markets. Nevertheless, the demand for rhinoceros horn and black market prices have skyrocketed in recent years due to the value that some cultures have placed on ornamental carvings, good luck charms or alleged medicinal purposes, leading to a decimation of the global rhinoceros population. As a result, rhino populations have declined by more than 90 percent since 1970. South Africa, for example, has witnessed a rapid escalation in poaching of live animals, rising from 13 in 2007 to more than 618 in 2012.
Operation Crash (named for the term used to describe a herd of rhinoceros) is an ongoing multi-agency effort to detect, deter and prosecute those engaged in the illegal killing of rhinoceros and the unlawful trafficking of rhinoceros horns. The investigation resulting in the charges announced today has been conducted by the Special Investigations Unit of the FWS Office of Law Enforcement, with assistance from the Department of Homeland Security. The Li case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of New Jersey by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen O’Leary. The Wei case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Watts-FitzGerald in the Southern District of Florida. The Wang case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Janis Echenberg in the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York. Senior Trial Attorney Richard A. Udell of the Environmental Crimes Section of the U.S. Department of Justice is assisting in and coordinating all of the prosecutions. Additional support has been provided by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York.