Texas Antiques Appraiser Sentenced to 25 Months in Prison for Rhino and Ivory Smuggling Conspiracy
Ning Qiu, 43, of Frisco, Texas, an appraiser of Asian art, was sentenced today by U.S. District Judge Thad Heartfield, in Beaumont, Texas, to 25 months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release for conspiring to smuggle rhinoceros horns and objects made from rhino horn and elephant ivory, worth nearly $1 million, from the United States to China. Qiu was also directed to pay a $150,000 fine, which was directed to the Lacey Act Reward Fund.
The sentence was announced by Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden for the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, U.S. Attorney John M. Bales for the Eastern District of Texas and Director Dan Ashe for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Qiu had worked for seven years as an Asian antique appraiser for an auction house in Dallas, Texas. Qiu previously pleaded guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Don D. Bush to an information charging him with conspiracy to smuggle and violate the Lacey Act. Qiu was identified as part of “Operation Crash” – a nationwide effort led by the USFWS and the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute those involved in the black market trade of rhinoceros horns and other protected species.
In papers filed in federal court, Qiu admitted to acting as one of three antique dealers in the United States who Zhifei Li, the admitted “boss” of the conspiracy, paid to help obtain wildlife items and smuggle them to Li via Hong Kong. Li was sentenced to serve 70 months in prison on May 27, 2014, in federal district court in Newark, New Jersey, for playing 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 mainland China.
“Qiu was a key player in a web of wildlife traffickers who used his role as an antique dealer to illicitly smuggle wildlife items, including rhino horn and elephant ivory, from the United States to China,” said Assistant Attorney General Cruden. “We will continue to investigate and prosecute those who are involved in this dark trade, which fuels poaching and is driving some of the world’s most iconic species to the brink of extinction.”
“Ning Qiu’s unseemly business of trafficking in the horns of endangered rhinos is over and now he will serve a just sentence of imprisonment,” said U.S. Attorney Bales. “I only hope that others still involved in what is a nasty, brutally cruel exercise will observe the outcome of “Operation Crash” and immediately cease and desist their detestable practices. I commend the excellent work by the agents and prosecutors.”
“The sentencing today of Ning Qiu is yet another successful prosecution resulting from Operation Crash and a further step in the global fight against wildlife trafficking and its dire consequences for rhinos, elephants and other wildlife,” said Director Ashe for USFWS. “This case is a stark reminder of the role businesses and criminals based in the United States play in driving the current illegal slaughter of wildlife. It also illustrates the consequences these criminals will inevitably face for their greed and indifference to its horrific result.”
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 (CITES), a treaty signed by over 175 countries around the world to protect fish, wildlife and plants that are or may become imperiled due to the demands of international markets.
Qiu admitted to meeting Li in 2009 through his work at the auction house in Dallas, Texas, and entering into a conspiracy with Li whereby Qiu traveled throughout the United States to purchase raw and carved rhinoceros horns and elephant ivory for Li, often receiving specific instructions from Li on which items to buy and how much to pay. Upon purchasing the items, Li transferred funds directly into Qiu’s bank accounts in the United States and China. After acquiring the items for Li, Qiu arranged for them to be smuggled to a location in Hong Kong, which was provided by Li. In December 2013, another one of Li’s suppliers, Qiang Wang aka Jeffrey Wang was sentenced in the Southern District of New York to 37 months in prison.
As part of his plea, Li admitted that he sold 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. 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 2009 and 2013, Qiu purchased and smuggled to Hong Kong at least five raw rhinoceros horns weighing at least 20 pounds. Qiu smuggled the raw rhino horns by first 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. Qiu purchased several of the horns he smuggled to China from Elite Decorative Arts, an auction house located in Boynton Beach, Florida. Elite Decorative Arts has entered a guilty plea in District Court in West Palm Beach, Florida, for its role in illegally trafficking and smuggling wildlife, including rhinoceros horns, elephant ivory and items made from coral. Elite is scheduled to be sentenced on May 20, 2015.
The investigation is continuing and is being handled by the USFWS’s Office of Law Enforcement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas and the Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section. The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney James Noble and Trial Attorney Gary N. Donner of the Environmental Crimes Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division.