Conserving the Nature of America
Office of External Affairs

Service ‘Crashes’ Down on Suspected Rhino Horn Trafficking

Video Caption: USFWS Director Dan Ashe and USFWS Law Enforcement Chief William C. Woody. Interviewed by USFWS Communications Chief Chris Tollefson.

More than 150 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agents and refuge officers, with Homeland Security Investigations agents, Internal Revenue Service agents and state conservation officers, have arrested seven people and executed 13 search warrants as part of Operation Crash, a nationwide undercover investigation of illegal trafficking in rhinoceros horn.

These members of an alleged organized crime ring trafficking in rhino horn were arrested and charged with conspiracy and violations of the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act for purchasing rhino horns from various suppliers in the U.S. In coordinated raids in five states, agents seized 37 rhinoceros horns and products made from horns such as dagger handles and libation cups. Also seized during the course of the operation were approximately $1 million in cash and another $1 million in gold ingots, as well as diamonds and Rolex watches.

“Trafficking in rhino horn is about greed, pure and simple. People who smuggle rhino horn, regardless of where it comes from, are no better than the poachers in Africa who hack off the horns of living rhinos and leave them to die a horrible death,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “This week’s arrests are only the beginning of a coordinated international effort to crack down on rhino horn smuggling and stop the senseless slaughter of these amazing animals.”

Rising global demand for rhino horn – both for alleged medicinal value and ornamental use – has led to an epidemic of poaching in Africa, as well as theft and illegal trade in rhino horns from museums and private collections. Illegal trafficking in rhino horn threatens to reverse decades of rhino conservation work in Africa and Asia, driving rhinos to the brink of extinction in the wild. Scientists have found no evidence to support its alleged medicinal power – it is made of the same stuff as fingernails – and many practitioners have stopped using it. But urban legends about its powers as an aphrodisiac or cure for cancer keep it in demand. Rhino horn’s beauty also is prized by many cultures.

The Endangered Species Act protects four of the five existing rhino species (Black, Sumatran, Javan, and Indian) as endangered, which makes interstate or international trade of them or their parts illegal in the United States, except with a special permit. The northern white rhino is also protected as endangered under the ESA. While the southern white rhino is not listed under the ESA, it is rated as near threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.

All rhinos are also protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), of which the United States is a member. CITES restricts commercial trade in rhinos among member countries worldwide, with the exception of live southern white rhinos from South Africa and Swaziland populations.

Wild rhinos can still be found in parts of Asia and Africa. But many live in small, fragmented populations that are vulnerable to collapse due to lack of breeding opportunities and risk of random events or disease.

Before 1900, black rhinos occurred throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, but between 1970 and 1992, rhino populations declined by 96 percent. Black rhinos went extinct in many range states, and by 1992, only 2,300 individuals survived in seven countries.

Sumatran rhinos have decreased by 50 percent in the past 18 years, leaving less than 200 surviving, primarily in Indonesia and Malaysia. The Javan rhino, the rarest of the rhino species with between 27 and 44 animals remaining, survives only in Indonesia.  With strict protection from Indian and Nepalese wildlife authorities, the greater one-horned rhino of India and Nepal has recovered from fewer than 200 earlier in the 20th century to as many as 2,850 today. However, even with population increases, poaching pressure has remained high in both countries.

The southern white rhino is considered one of the world’s great conservation successes. Decimated by hunting, southern white rhinos nearly became extinct, with fewer than 100 surviving in the wild. Decades of strong law enforcement and conservation management enabled the subspecies to rebound to a population of about 20,150 in 2011, making it the most abundant of all rhinos. As with the greater one-horned rhino, the current poaching onslaught threatens to reverse this success and push the white rhino back into decline.

Despite existing protections and anti-poaching efforts, illegal trade on the global black market flourishes and continues to attract poachers. Over the past few years, demand for rhino horn and the prices people are willing to pay have skyrocketed as economic growth in Asia has created new wealth for millions of people.  As a result, rhino horn prices have risen to the point that, pound-for-pound, it may be more valuable than gold or cocaine.

The investigations of Operation Crash show that people in the United States can be lured by that value. Unscrupulous operators are buying up rhino horn here and smuggling it to Vietnam and other Asian countries for medicinal use and as status symbols for wealthy elites. And poaching has increased exponentially in Africa and Asia, leading to the deaths of more than 400 rhinos in the past year alone.

“Rhinos are a part of our planet’s conservation heritage, and everyone has a stake in ensuring that they thrive in the wild,” said Ashe. “The fact that our nation is being used as a base and a transshipment point by criminals seeking to profit on the deaths of hundreds of rhinos makes it imperative that we act here and now to shut them down.”

The Service has a dedicated staff of Law Enforcement agents and inspectors who enforce national and international wildlife laws, including the interstate and foreign commerce provisions of the Endangered Species Act and Lacey Act.  In addition to investigating wildlife crimes that occur on U.S. soil, agents work with other countries on training and monitoring trade activities.

Ashe noted that law enforcement efforts are only a part of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s coordinated efforts to ensure the future of rhinos in the wild. Through the Service’s Wildlife Without Borders Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Fund, the Service provides grants throughout Africa and Asia to groups and governments seeking to protect and recover rhino populations.

Funding has supported anti-poaching teams, provided training and equipment for game wardens and investigators, fostered reintroductions to habitat where rhinos have gone extinct, and developed conservation education and outreach for people living near the rhino habitats.

And law enforcement operations will continue in the United States and abroad, as the Service works with Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and international law enforcement agencies to target and arrest poachers and smugglers across the globe.

“As these arrests demonstrate, we take wildlife trafficking seriously, and will do everything we can to identify and disrupt smuggling operations and hold the perpetrators to account,” said William C. Woody, Chief of Law Enforcement. “The future of the rhino in the wild depends on a sustained, coordinated law enforcement effort.”

For more information on what the Service is doing to protect and conserve wild populations of rhinos, visit http://www.fws.gov/rhinoday2.html.

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Last updated: February 23, 2012
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