The conviction of a Biscayne Boulevard shop owner this month was the latest crackdown by a federal task force targeting illegal trafficking in a substance that costs more per ounce than cocaine, or even gold.
Black rhino horn.
The horns, prized in some Asian nations as popular but unproven folk remedies, are at the center of an international black market with a hub in South Florida. High prices and demand have triggered a poaching bloodbath in Africa that threatens the survival of black rhinos and fueled a growing illegal trade in old taxidermy mounts from museums or private collections.
It’s a criminal network run like sex, gun and drug trafficking and is often linked to the same players, said Edward Grace, assistant director for the U.S. Department of Justice’s division of Wildlife Law Enforcement, which oversees a multiagency investigative effort called “Operation Crash.” Crash is another name for a herd of rhino.
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“It’s like any drug investigation,’’ said Grace. “Take out cocaine or heroin and replace it with rhino horn.’’
Miami, already a nexus for smugglers dealing in an array of protected wildlife, also has figured in the illicit horn trade. There been three rhino-related busts in the last two years alone.
“Because we have such a diverse community and such an attractiveness as an international market city this is always going to be an issue for us,” said Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald, an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami who prosecutes wildlife smuggling crimes.
The latest case involves Gene Harris, 76, owner of Art by God, a Biscayne Boulevard gallery in Miami that sells cultural artifacts, geological oddities and wildlife products. Earlier this month, Harris pleaded guilty in Miami federal court to brokering an illegal transaction involving rhino horn – a violation of federal and international endangered species laws. Harris, who is scheduled for sentencing in September, faces up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
Case records show that Harris, representing clients in California, facilitated a $60,000 purchase of two mounted rhino horns from a Phoenix couple and arranged their transportation. For his part in the 2011 deal, records show, Harris received a finder’s fee of $10,000.
Jon Sale, Harris’ lawyer, said previous media reports have sensationalized his client’s role.
“The horn in question was brought to the United States legally and was not part of the rhino poaching,’ said Sale. Harris merely located the old horn from a domestic source and brokered the deal, he said.
“Mr. Harris is remorseful for his lapse of judgment for participating in one transaction in which he was the finder that brought two people together,” Sale said.
Sale also said conservation was one of the stated missions of Harris’ gallery on Biscayne Boulevard in downtown Miami. A month before his conviction Harris closed his store on Biscayne. In 2012, his storage warehouse in Wynwood burned to the ground.
Court records show Harris’ clients, Felix and Vin Cheong “Jimmy” Kha, were operating the biggest wildlife trafficking ring in the United States before they were arrested in California last year on criminal charges of propagating the illegal trade of black rhino horns, Grace said. The Harris conviction followed two other Miami rhino horn arrests last year.
Zhifei Li, 30, kingpin of an international ring, was arrested at a Miami Beach hotel. In town to participate in the Miami Beach Original Antique Show, he tried to purchase horns for $59,000 from an undercover federal agent. The Justice Department said Li’s ring dealt in rhino horn and other exotic animal products worth up to $4.5 million. Li, in a case prosecuted in New Jersey, received a 70-month prison sentence.
Shusen Wei, 44, a Chinese business executive visiting the antique show with Li, was also arrested for attempting to bribe a federal agent to free Li. According to court documents, Wei offered the agent $10,000. He later pleaded guilty for attempting to smuggle rhino horns from Miami to China.
Such antique shows, as well as estate sales and private vendors, are among the targets for investigators trying to keep tabs on the horn trade, said Watts-Fitzgerald. Horns sawed off of old taxidermy mounts in museums or the hands of private owners who may not know the law are the most common ways for traffickers in the United States to profit from a growing and lucrative market.
Rhino horns can sell for as much as $25,000 per pound. Market prices for gold, which have risen dramatically in recent years, currently hover around $1,300 an ounce. That works out to just less than $21,000 a pound.
“You have people who have made this their specialty, including Mr. Harris, because they know their value,” said Watts-FitzGerald.
Poaching is the other more dangerous and devastating supply line. The illegal hunting has plunged rhino populations to crisis levels, conservations say. And they are not the only victims. The conflict has escalated to such an extent that poachers and park rangers alike often carry high caliber machine guns to protect not just the animals, but their own lives.
“It’s really serious,” said Watts-Fitzgerald. “We have rangers being gunned down trying to protect the few animals that are left there.”
The surge of poaching violence in Africa, the soaring prices and expanding criminal networks led to the creation of Operation Crash in 2011. The task force aims to tamp down demand, targeting buyers and sellers who may not be directly connected to poaching but perpetuate demand. According to Grace, Crash has made 18 arrests, including Harris, to date.
“We put all the agents together in a room and starting connecting the dots, and this led us to Harris,” said Grace.
Grace said drug, firearm and other illegal traffickers have entered the lucrative black market in recent years. In March, for example, agents in Las Vegas arrested Edward Levine, a former courier for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar on charges of trying to sell two rhino horns to a federal agent for $55,000.
“The reason they are connected is that they already had the networks in place,” he said. “It’s a high-reward, low-risk crime.”
The demand is largely fueled by China and Vietnam, where a growing middle class value them as ornamental drinking cups or still believes horns have medicinal value to cure cancer or hangovers — despite evidence to the contrary.
The Vietnamese Ministry of Health even recently issued a press release pronouncing rhino horns are of no medicinal value. The African Wildlife Federation announced that this is a critical step towards stemming the the illegal trade, as South Africa is on track to lose 1,027 rhino by the year’s end if poaching rates remain steady.
With the U.S. one of the largest buyers of exotic wildlife, the Obama administration has stepped up its efforts to curb international trade in protected species, last year creating a presidential task force on wildlife trafficking. But Grace said it will take a combination of “education and strong law enforcement” to reverse the decline of rhinos.
“If the poaching numbers don’t change there is a chance that the rhinos could no longer exist in our kids’ lifetime,” said Grace.