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 Robert G. Dreher, the Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice, Paul J. Fishman, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, 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).
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 serve 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,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Dreher for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “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. The Justice Department will continue to vigorously enforce the law designed to protect wildlife. This is a continuing investigation."
“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.”
“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.
According to the charges, plea agreement and a detailed joint factual statement filed in in Newark federal court , the investigation of Li began in November 2011, after a confidential informant sold two raw rhino horns to a middleman at the Vince Lombardi rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike in an Operation Crash undercover sale. These government-supplied rhino horns were, in turn, sold to a Long Island City antiques dealer who was working for Li.
At Li’s direction, raw rhino horns were hidden by wrapping them in duct tape, hiding them in porcelain vases and falsely describing them on customs and shipping documents, including by labeling them as porcelain vases or handicrafts.
Li purchased 25 raw rhino horns, including 13 endangered black rhinoceros horns weighing approximately 151 pounds, through connections in New York and New Jersey, and another five raw rhino horns weighing at least 20 pounds through an accomplice in Dallas.
Li sold whole rhino horns to factories where they would be carved into fake antiques. The leftover pieces from the carving process were sold for alleged “medicinal” purposes even though rhino horn is made of compressed keratin, the same material in human hair and nails and has no proven medical efficacy.
Between 2011 and 2013, Li purchased approximately 60 carved ivory items from U.S. auction houses with an approximate market value of $500,000, all of which were smuggled to China at Li’s direction.
Before arriving in Miami, Li sent a text message to the Long Island City antiques dealer saying that he had as much as $500,000 to spend in the U.S. on antiques and rhino horn. When purchasing two rhino horns from an undercover USFWS agent at a Miami Beach hotel, Li told the covert agent that he was interested in buying more rhino horns regardless of quality, as much as the agent could find, and inquired if the horns could be shipped directly to Hong Kong.
In April 2012, after a Dallas-based accomplice purchased a large, eight-pound raw rhino horn for Li in Florida worth more than $140,000, Li sent the dealer an email directing him to cut the horn into two pieces, wrap them in electrical tape, and send them to Hong Kong in separate packages. The email included a photo of the rhino horn with a red line drawn though it indicating where the lengthy horn should be cut.
After Li’s conspirator in Long Island City purchased two raw elephant tusks for Li weighing more than 100 lbs, Li sent instructions by email that the shipper should declare the contents as “automobile parts” and not use the word “tusk” on the shipping documents.
Li smuggled libation cups carved from rhinoceros horns from the U.S. to Hong Kong. Rhino carvings valued as much as $242,500 were sold to Li’s customers in China. In early 2013, one of those customers, Shusen Wei, pleaded guilty in the Southern District of Florida to knowingly buying a smuggled rhino carving from Li.
The plea agreement requires Li to forfeit $3.5 million in proceeds of his criminal activity as well as several Asian artifacts. Also, various ivory objects seized by the USFWS as part of the investigation will be surrendered. The maximum potential penalty is 10 years for each of the smuggling counts and five years for each of the other offenses, as well as a $250,000 fine per count, or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense. Sentencing before Judge Salas has been scheduled.
The investigation is continuing and is being handled by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida and the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section. The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kathleen P. O’Leary and Barbara Ward of the New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s Office Criminal Division and Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Unit, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-FitzGerald of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida and Senior Counsel Richard A. Udell of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division.