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Three More Rhino Horn Smugglers Busted in the US

Three arrests of people tied into a ring is laudable, but the trade has grown to be so large that even key busts like this aren't enough to dismantle it.
Antique rhino horn cups like those above can easily be of dubious provenance, and are a target of smugglers. Via

Finally, some good news on the wildlife trafficking front: Three men, including a Chinese business executive, have been arrested due to their connection to a rhino horn smuggling ring. The bust, which saw an arrest each in Miami, New Jersey, and New York, is the latest from Operation Crash, a multi-year effort by Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of Justice to clamp down on rhino smuggling.

Zhifei Li, a 28 year old Chinese national, Shusen Wei, a 44 year old Chinese business executive, and Qing Wang are the three currently indicted. Li is charged with the international smuggling of rhino horns, having allegedly attempted to smugge 20 complete horns (which fetch six-figure prices apiece) from the U.S. to Hong Kong in 2011 and 2012.


According to a grand jury indictment in New Jersey, Li wired hundreds of thousands of dollars to an accomplice in the U.S., who then shipped horn to another accomplice in Hong Kong. Li was also indicted in Miami for a separate incident that occurred during the Original Miami Beach Antique Show this January, in which he bought a pair of black rhino horns from an undercover FWS agent in a hotel room for $59,000. If that sounds like shady business, it's because the influence of organized crime on the rhino market has basically turned it into the drug trade.

Wei apparently is an accomplice of Li, and was charged with trying to bribe an official following Li's arrest. According to the DoJ, Wei was sharing a hotel room with Li at the antiques show, and told officials in an interview following Li's arrest that he knew of Li's activities, and had actually purchased horn from him before. He's been charged with attempting to bribe an official because he allegedly asked an informant to invite a FWS official to dinner to allow Wei to offer money to hook Li up with some preferential treatment.

That bonehead move aside, it's important to note that the incident took place at an antique show. The act of selling a rhino horn isn't necessarily illegal under certain conditions; legitimate antique horns are legal to sell in many circumstances, which means that antique dealers can unwittingly serve as middlemen dealing in recently-harvested horn that's made to look old.

Additionally, as the third man's arrest shows, it's not always complete horns that are objects of smugglers' eyes, either. Wang was indicted in New York on charges of smuggling libation cups carved from rhinoceros horn. Drinking from the cups is said to offer positive health properties (which is complete hogwash), and is an old Chinese tradition, which means it's a ripe avenue for smuggling horn that's disguised as antiques. Wang apparently was a purchaser for Li, who orchestrated the cash and smuggling activities.

The takeaway is that it's positive to see FWS and DoJ continuing to put effort into quelling the rhino trade, especially as the trade has exploded in recent years and led to the growing slaughter of what rhinos are left. Still, the case also highlights one of the key problems with stopping the trade: Smugglers know that the antique loophole helps obfuscate what's a legal and illegal horn, which has become a systemic problem.

That means that, rather than busting someone for possession, arrests require elaborate stings like the one that netted Li, stings that put officers' lives at risk and which require a ton of man hours to pull off. It's heartening to U.S. authorities for taking the trade seriously, but it's also frustrating to see how difficult making an arrest can be when there aren't better guidelines, like a licensing or ID system, for discerning what horns are legal or not.