The owner of a Chinese antique business has pleaded guilty to rhino and tusk smuggling in connection with a US Fish and Wildlife Service investigation. Here are the details:

Ringleader Of International Rhino Smuggling Conspiracy Pleads Guilty To Wildlife Trafficking Crimes
Dec. 19, 2013

WASHINGTON – Zhifei Li, the owner of an antique business in China, pleaded to organizing an illegal wildlife smuggling conspiracy in which 30 rhinoceros horns and numerous objects made from rhino horn and elephant ivory worth more than $4.5 million were smuggled from the United States to China.

Li, 29, of Shandong, China, the owner of Overseas Treasure Finding in Shandong, pleaded to a total of 11 counts: one count of conspiracy to smuggle and violate the Lacey Act; seven counts of smuggling; one count of illegal wildlife trafficking in violation of the Lacey Act; and two counts of making false wildlife documents.

Li was arrested in Florida in January 2013 on federal charges brought under seal in New Jersey and shortly after arriving in the country. Before he was arrested, he purchased two endangered black rhinoceros horns from an undercover US Fish and Wildlife Service agent in a Miami Beach hotel room for $59,000 while attending an antique show. Li was arrested as part of “Operation Crash” – a nationwide effort led by the USFWS and the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute those involved in the black market trade of rhinoceros horns and other protected species.

In papers filed in Newark federal court, Li admitted that he was the “boss” of three antique dealers in the United States whom he paid to help obtain wildlife items and smuggle them to him via Hong Kong. One of those individuals was Qiang Wang, aka “Jeffrey Wang,” who was sentenced to 37 months in prison on Dec. 5, 2013, in New York. Li arranged for financing to pay for the wildlife, purchased and negotiated the price, directed how to smuggle the items out of the United States, and obtained the assistance of additional collaborators in Hong Kong to receive the smuggled goods and then smuggle them to him in mainland China.

In pleading guilty, Li admitted that he sold 30 smuggled, raw rhinoceros horns worth approximately $3 million – approximately $17,500 per pound – to factories in China where raw rhinoceros horns are carved into fake antiques known as Zuo Jiu (which means “to make it as old” in Mandarin). In China, there is a centuries old tradition of drinking from an intricately carved “libation cup” made from a rhinoceros horn. Owning or drinking from such a cup is believed by some to bring good health, and true antiques are highly prized by collectors. The escalating value of such items has resulted in an increased demand for rhinoceros horn that has helped fuel a thriving black market, including recently carved fake antiques.

According to the charges, plea agreement and a detailed joint factual statement filed in in Newark federal court:

The investigation of Li began in November 2011, after a confidential informant sold two raw rhino horns to a middleman at the Vince Lombardi rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike in an Operation Crash undercover sale. These government-supplied rhino horns were, in turn, sold to a Long Island City antiques dealer who was working for Li.

At Li’s direction, raw rhino horns were hidden by wrapping them in duct tape, hiding them in porcelain vases and falsely describing them on customs and shipping documents, including by labeling them as porcelain vases or handicrafts.

Li purchased 25 raw rhino horns, including 13 endangered black rhinoceros horns weighing approximately 151 pounds, through connections in New York and New Jersey, and another five raw rhino horns weighing at least 20 pounds through an accomplice in Dallas, Texas.

Li sold whole rhino horns to factories where they would be carved into fake antiques. The leftover pieces from the carving process were sold for alleged “medicinal” purposes even though rhino horn is made of compressed keratin, the same material in human hair and nails and has no proven medical efficacy.

Between 2011 and 2013, Li purchased approximately 60 carved ivory items from U.S. auction houses with an approximate market value of $500,000, all of which were smuggled to China at Li’s direction.

Before arriving in Miami, Li sent a text message to the Long Island City antiques dealer saying that he had as much as $500,000 to spend in the U.S. on antiques and rhino horn. When purchasing two rhino horns from an undercover USFWS agent at a Miami Beach hotel, Li told the covert agent that he was interested in buying more rhino horns regardless of quality, as much as the agent could find, and inquired if the horns could be shipped directly to Hong Kong.

In April 2012, after a Dallas-based accomplice purchased a large, eight-pound raw rhino horn for Li in Florida worth more than $140,000, Li sent the dealer an email directing him to cut the horn into two pieces, wrap them in electrical tape, and send them to Hong Kong in separate packages. The email included a photo of the rhino horn with a red line drawn though it indicating where the lengthy horn should be cut.

After Li’s conspirator in Long Island City purchased two raw elephant tusks for Li weighing more than 100 pounds, Li sent instructions by email that the shipper should declare the contents as “automobile parts” and not use the word “tusk” on the shipping documents.

Li smuggled libation cups carved from rhinoceros horns from the U.S. to Hong Kong. Rhino carvings valued as much as $242,500 were sold to Li’s customers in China. In early 2013, one of those customers, Shusen Wei, pleaded guilty in the Southern District of Florida to knowingly buying a smuggled rhino carving from Li.

The plea agreement requires Li to forfeit $3.5 million in proceeds of his criminal activity as well as several Asian artifacts. Also, various ivory objects seized by the USFWS as part of the investigation will be surrendered. The maximum potential penalty is 10 years for each of the smuggling counts and five years for each of the other offenses, as well as a $250,000 fine per count, or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense.