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Service Investigators Tackle Rhrino Horn Trafficking
by Sandra Cleva
Photo Credit: Michelle Gadd, USFWS
When Jarrod Wade Steffen, a former Texas professional rodeo star turned rhino-horn broker, and his two travel companions approached security at Long Beach Airport in California on February 8, 2012, he expected to sail on through. After all, he had done it eight times before over the previous two years. But Transportation Security Administration officers, acting at the request of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), were ready.
Officers stopped the trio to search their carry-on luggage and found exactly what Service special agents expected—a small fortune of $337,000 in hundred dollar bills. This money represented payment from two Los Angeles businessmen, Felix and Jimmy Kha, for seven rhino horns that Steffen had recently sent them by mail, with some left over to fund new purchases of this high-priced wildlife contraband.
Two weeks later, Service special agents arrested Steffen, the Khas, and five other individuals in the initial nation-wide "take down" of Operation Crash. Codenamed with the term used to describe a herd of rhinos, this case is an ongoing undercover investigation that the Service's Office of Law Enforcement hopes will penetrate every aspect of the black market trade in rhino horn.
Rhinos on the Brink
Four of the five rhinoceros species are currently protected as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. International trade in rhinos or rhino parts requires permits issued under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and commercial import or export for most species is seldom authorized since the species is protected at the Treaty's highest level.
Despite these protections for rhino species, the market for rhino horn has exploded in recent years, largely in response to the growing demand for this material among newly affluent consumers in Vietnam and China, where ground horn is believed by many to have extraordinary medicinal powers and horn carvings represent status symbols. With horn fetching as much as $65,000 per kilogram, poaching of rhinos in Africa is at an all-time high, and groups and individuals worldwide are jockeying to cash in.
"We're seeing hundreds of rhinos slaughtered in Africa each year for the horn trade and horns already in countries like the U.S. being sold and smuggled to Asia for this same market," says Edward Grace, the Service's Deputy Assistant Director for Law Enforcement.
In 2012, 668 rhinos were unlawfully killed for the horn trade in South Africa alone—over 3,200 percent increase from just five years earlier. In fact, the rhino poaching crisis is one of the major factors behind President Barack Obama's recent Executive Order to prioritize U.S. efforts to combat wildlife trafficking on an emergency basis.
Photo Credit: USFWS
Five of those arrested in the February 2012 takedown of Operation Crash, including the Khas and Steffen, have pleaded guilty to federal felony violations that carry stiff penalties. While Steffen's sentencing is slated for October 2013, both Jimmy and Felix Kha have already appeared in court to learn their fates.
In May 2013, a federal judge in Los Angeles sentenced this father and son to spend 42 and 46 months, respectively, in federal prison, and fined their business $100,000. The pair, who over a two-year period bought up rhino horn from suppliers across the U.S. for export to China and Vietnam, were also ordered to pay $20,000 in criminal fines and a $185,000 tax penalty and assessment.
The Khas had already abandoned their interest in $2 million worth of rhino horns and two luxury vehicles to the government when they negotiated their plea agreement. In addition, they learned in court that nearly $700,000 of the profits they made as rhino horn entrepreneurs – an amount representing cash, gold, jewelry, and precious stones seized by Service special agents – would be turned over to the Service's Multinational Species Conservation Fund to support programs that help protect rhinos in Africa.
The total number of arrests in Operation Crash now stands at 15. Recent defendants charged include an Irish national buying rhino horn up across the U.S.; a Chinese national indicted in connection with smuggling 20 raw horns and numerous carvings to Hong Kong and China in 2011 and 2012; and a Chinese business executive linked to this individual who was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York as he attempted to flee the country.
"We've had great support from the Department of Justice's Environmental and Natural Resources Division and U.S. Attorney's Offices literally from coast to coast," says Grace. "We anticipate more arrests and successful prosecutions in the months to come."
Sandra Cleva, a program analyst in the Service's Office of Law Enforcement Branch of Investigations, headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-358- 1949.
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