Hunting Rhino Horns in the Deep Web

Rhinoceros horn trafficking has become a billion-dollar business and the scourge of a threatened species. With law enforcement cracking down in many countries throughout the world, vendors have taken a cue from the drug trade and moved deeper into the...

Last fall, I logged into an underground message board in the anonymized recesses of the internet called the deep web in search of rhinoceros horn.

Once thought to posess magical abilities, and now used primarily for supposed medicinal purposes across Asia, rhino horn is now an incredibly rare commodity that's worth more than cocaine, gold, or platinum. In Southeast Asia, a single horn—often ripped from the head of a dead rhinoceros by global criminal gangs—can sell for half a million dollars or more.

After I posted my request, plenty of people wrote back, though it wasn't clear who was trying to sell and who was trying to scam. But one respondent sounded more serious. His email handle was "Keros," the Greek word for horn, and he dismissed my request as amateurish, explaining that the horn trade isn't something to take lightly. "Anyway," he wrote, "my material is black rhino horn pure keratin hunted in Namibia. I have three in the US right now."

As strange as it sounds, the international rhino horn trade has, like everything else, gone digital. Last year, a nationwide law enforcement sting called Operation Crash netted seven individuals, including a Texas rodeo star who'd been making horn deals via Facebook. That bust marked a rising trend for the sale of an item that can fetch $90,000 or more per kilogram. Enforcement has cracked down on overt sales in the US, but vendors have taken a cue from the drug trade and moved deeper into the internet. Alongside heroin and MDMA, rhino horn is now being advertised through the impossible-to-trace connections of the darknet.

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