Have you seen me: Red notice for suspected ivory trafficker

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Madi Conteh

 Courtesy of Interpol. March 2017

LYON, France – Interpol issued an internationally wanted persons Red Notice for a suspected ivory trafficker following the seizure of hundreds of pieces of elephant tusks in Thailand.

The Red Notice for Madi Conteh, a Gambian national, was published at the request of the Malawi authorities, where he is wanted on charges of ‘exporting government trophies without permit’. Conteh is suspected of concealing 330 kg of ivory pieces in a shipment falsely labeled as unprocessed gemstones sent from Malawi and seized in Bangkok in early March.

Due to heightened trafficking concerns following the recovery of illegal ivory in a similar shipment from Africa in 2016, customs authorities conducted additional checks of the cargo and discovered 442 pieces of ivory worth around USD 500,000 concealed in several containers.

Another Gambian national was arrested in Bangkok when he attempted to pick up the shipment containing the trafficked ivory. The two are suspected to be part of an ivory trafficking ring involved in smuggling elephant tusks from Africa to Asia.

Interpol’s Environmental Security unit is supporting the investigation through its Project Wisdom which assists member countries in combating the illegal trade in ivory and rhinoceros horn.

A new Interpol initiative launched in January targets traffickers in Asia sourcing wildlife from Africa, by providing a strengthened law enforcement response in source, transit and destination countries, particularly those linked to the illicit trade in ivory, rhinoceros horn and Asian big cat products.

Charges in pool cue smuggling case

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 A California pool cue maker has been charged in a smuggling case involving sticks with ivory inlays. Below is the release from the U.S. Department of Justice.

North Hollywood Pool Cue Maker Charged with Helping Smuggle Elephant Ivory

July 28, 2016

LOS ANGELES – A North Hollywood man surrendered to U.S. Marshals this morning after an arrest warrant was issued on federal charges of aiding and abetting the illegal smuggling of protected elephant ivory.

Cesar Ernesto Gutierrez, 75, was charged in a criminal complaint filed Wednesday in United States District Court with aiding and abetting the attempted illegal exportation from the United States to Taiwan of protected African elephant ivory.


Garlic tusk smuggling scheme

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Clockwise from top left. “What’s all this, then?”; Enough garlic to keep an Italian restaurant stocked for a decade; Gratuitous raid jacket shot using fisheye lens; Wild free-range garlic. Photo collage by Interpol

It’s difficult to pass off elephant tusks as garlic. Especially when you have 700 tusks. This is probably why more people don’t try it. More on how the scheme failed, according to Interpol, below:

Networks behind ivory and rhino horn trafficking targeted in East Africa

May 4, 2016

One man has been arrested and warrants issued for three others in connection with ongoing investigations into two organized crime networks believed to have trafficked at least 8,635 kg of ivory and 53 kg of rhino horn from East and Southern Africa to Asia.

A 44-year-old Chinese national was arrested in Tanzania on suspicion of trafficking in government trophies following the deployment of INTERPOL Investigative Support Teams to Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda.


Auction official pleads in horn investigation

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 Auction official Pleads Guilty in Connection with $1 Million Wildlife Smuggling Conspiracy

March 9, 2016

Joseph Chait, the senior auction administrator of a Beverly Hills, California, gallery and auction house, pleaded guilty to conspiring to smuggle wildlife products made from rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory and coral with a market value of at least approximately $1 million! according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

According to allegations contained in the Information and statements made in court filings and proceedings:

Chait and his co-conspirators engaged in illegal trafficking of wildlife with a market value of at least $1 million. Chait personally falsified customs forms by stating that rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory items were made of bone, wood or plastic. For example, during Asia Week in New York City in or about March 2011, Chait was approached about the potential sale of a carving of Guanyin, an East Asian spiritual figure made from rhinoceros horn (the Rhino Carving).

Despite knowing that it was not a genuine antique, Chait and his co-conspirators accepted the Rhino Carving for consignment, advertised the sale to foreign clients in China and put the Rhino Carving on the cover of Auction House-1’s catalogue in connection with an auction of Asian art and antiques. After the Rhino Carving sold at auction for $230,000, Chait offered to make a false document for the buyer to help the buyer smuggle the item out of the country. The fake invoice falsely stated that the item cost $108.75 and was made of plastic.

Chait and his co-conspirators also sold ivory carvings to another foreign customer and provided those carvings to that customer’s courier, even after learning that the customer had been arrested in China for smuggling ivory purchased from Chait’s auction house. More

Professor pleads in smuggling case

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 A Minnesota college philosophy professor has pleaded to moving $1 million worth of ivory and rhino horn products as part of an side antiquities business. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation found he had been exporting the items to China against federal law. Here’s a synopsis from the Department of Justice:

Professor pleads to ivory and horn trafficking

Jan. 13, 2016

A St. Cloud State University Professor pleaded guilty to smuggling elephant ivory and to illegally exporting rhinoceros horns from the United States in violation of the Lacey Act. Under the Lacey Act, it is unlawful to import, export, transport, sell or purchase wildlife, fish or plants that were taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of a state, federal or foreign law.

YIWEI ZHENG, A/K/A STEVE ZHENG, 43, of St. Cloud, Minn., pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis to knowingly and fraudulently smuggling elephant ivory out of the United States on April 30, 2011, to a recipient in Shanghai, China, contrary to U.S. smuggling statutes. ZHENG also pleaded guilty to violating the Lacey Act by knowingly exporting two rhinoceros horns from the U.S. between July 25, 2010 and July 27, 2010, with knowledge that the two rhinoceros horns were transported and sold in violation of the laws and regulations of the United States, including the Endangered Species Act.

In addition to his employment as a Professor of Philosophy at St. Cloud State University, ZHENG operated an online business known as Crouching Dragon Antiques. As part of this business, ZHENG offered for sale and sold a variety of items, including items made of elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn.


Appraiser sentenced in horn, ivory probe

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A Texas art appraiser linked to Zhifei Li has been sentenced to two years in prison in an Operation Crash rhino horn and ivory investigation. 
Here’s the latest from Immigration and Customs Enforcement: 

Antiques Appraiser Sentenced to 25 Months in Prison for Rhino and Ivory Smuggling Conspiracy 

May 14, 2015

Ning Qiu, 43, of Frisco, Texas, an appraiser of Asian art, was sentenced today by U.S. District Judge Thad Heartfield, in Beaumont, Texas, to 25 months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release for conspiring to smuggle rhinoceros horns and objects made from rhino horn and elephant ivory, worth nearly $1 million, from the United States to China.  

Qiu was also directed to pay a $150,000 fine, which was directed to the Lacey Act Reward Fund.

Qiu had worked for seven years as an Asian antique appraiser for an auction house in Dallas, Texas.  Qiu  had pleaded guilty to an information charging him with conspiracy to smuggle and violate the Lacey Act.  He was identified as part of “Operation Crash” – a nationwide effort led by the USFWS and the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute those involved in the black market trade of rhinoceros horns and other protected species.

In papers filed in federal court, Qiu admitted to acting as one of three antique dealers in the United States who Zhifei Li, the admitted “boss” of the conspiracy, paid to help obtain wildlife items and smuggle them to Li via Hong Kong.  Li was sentenced to serve 70 months in prison on May 27, 2014, in federal district court in Newark, New Jersey, for playing a leadership and organizational role in the smuggling conspiracy by arranging for financing to pay for the wildlife, purchasing and negotiating the price, directing how to smuggle the items out of the United States and obtaining the assistance of additional collaborators in Hong Kong to receive the smuggled goods and then smuggle them to mainland China.

Qiu admitted to meeting Li in 2009 through his work at the auction house in Dallas, Texas, and entering into a conspiracy with Li whereby Qiu traveled throughout the United States to purchase raw and carved rhinoceros horns and elephant ivory for Li, often receiving specific instructions from Li on which items to buy and how much to pay.  Upon purchasing the items, Li transferred funds directly into Qiu’s bank accounts in the United States and China.  After acquiring the items for Li, Qiu arranged for them to be smuggled to a location in Hong Kong, which was provided by Li.  In December 2013, another one of Li’s suppliers, Qiang Wang aka Jeffrey Wang was sentenced in the Southern District of New York to 37 months in prison.

As part of his plea, Li admitted that he sold 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.  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 2009 and 2013, Qiu purchased and smuggled to Hong Kong at least five raw rhinoceros horns weighing at least 20 pounds.  Qiu smuggled the raw rhino horns by first 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. Qiu purchased several of the horns he smuggled to China from Elite Decorative Arts, an auction house located in Boynton Beach, Florida.  Elite Decorative Arts has entered a guilty plea in District Court in West Palm Beach, Florida, for its role in illegally trafficking and smuggling wildlife, including rhinoceros horns, elephant ivory and items made from coral.  Elite is scheduled to be sentenced on May 20, 2015.

Second ivory smuggler captured from Infra Terra list

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Feisal Ali. Photo courtesy Interpol

Feisal Ali. Photo courtesy Interpol

Police have nabbed a second person for alleged ivory smuggling in connection with an Interpol’s Infra Terra round-up. Feisal Ali was picked up in Tanzania just in time for the holidays.

Released in October, Infra Terra is essentially Interpol’s most wanted list of wildlife criminals. Ali joined eight others wanted for logging, poaching, pollution and fishing violations.

Ali’s arrest came weeks after another suspected ivory trader, Ben Simasiku, was arrested in Zambia. Simasiku, who was also on the Infra Terra list, had fled from Botswana in 2012 after he and three others were allegedly connected to 17 cut pieces of elephant tusks weighing approximately 115 kg.

Others on the list include: Adriano Giacobone of Italy, Ahmed Kamran of Pakistan, Bhekumusa Mawillis Shiba of South Africa, Ariel Bustamante Sanchez of Mexico, Nicolaas Antonius Duindam of the Netherlands, Sergey Darminov of Russia and Sudiman Sunoto of Indonesia.

Below is the Interpol release on Ali’s capture:

Tanzanian police hold suspected Kenyan ivory smuggling ring leader targeted in INTERPOL operation
Dec. 24, 2014

LYON, France – A Kenyan national suspected of leading an international ivory smuggling syndicate has been arrested in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, after he was targeted by an INTERPOL operation focusing on individuals wanted for environmental crimes.

Feisal Ali was highlighted by INTERPOL’s Operation Infra Terra (International Fugitive Round Up and Arrest) and featured in a worldwide INTERPOL public appeal for information in November. He is the second high-profile suspect to be arrested as part of Operation Infra Terra after Ben Simasiku was arrested in Zambia earlier this month.

Ali was the subject of an INTERPOL Red Notice for internationally wanted persons issued at the request of Kenyan authorities who suspect him of being behind an international ivory smuggling ring. In June authorities in Mombasa allegedly found him in possession of 314 pieces of ivory weighing more than 2.1 tonnes, including 228 complete elephant tusks.

Launched on 6 October, INTERPOL’s Operation Infra Terra gathered investigators from 21 of the participating countries to directly share information on more than 130 suspects wanted by 36 countries for crimes including illegal fishing, wildlife trafficking, illegal trade and disposal of waste, illegal logging and trading in illicit ivory.

During the operation, with the support of INTERPOL’s Fugitive Investigative Support (FIS) unit, investigators from Kenya and Tanzania exchanged information on Ali and his suspected location in Dar Es Salaam, via INTERPOL’s global tools, its National Central Bureaus (NCBs) in Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi as well as the Kenya Wildlife Service.

Feisal Ali now awaits repatriation to Kenya to stand trial for the offences he is charged with.


Wildlife indictment in Canadian antiques raid

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Canadian Antique Dealer Charged with Trafficking Wildlife
Antique Company President Charged with Smuggling Wildlife Worth More Than $500,000
July 29, 2014

Canadian antiques dealer Xiao Ju Guan, aka Tony Guan, 39, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Manhattan today for conspiring to smuggle wildlife, including rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory and coral, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Guan, the president and owner of an antiques business in Richmond, British Columbia, was arrested on March 29, 2014, after flying from Vancouver to New York and purchasing two endangered black rhinoceros horns from undercover special agents with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at a storage facility in the Bronx.

After purchasing the horns in a storage pod, Guan had the undercover agents drive him and a female accomplice acting as his interpreter to a nearby express mail store where he mailed the horns to an address in Point Roberts, Washington, less than a mile from the Canadian border and 17 miles from his business. Guan labeled the box of black rhino horns as containing “handicrafts” worth $200, even though he had just paid $45,000 for them. Guan indicated that he had people who could drive the horns across the border and that he had done so many times before.

Guan and his co-conspirators allegedly smuggled more than $500,000 of rhino horns and sculptures made from elephant ivory and coral from various U.S. auction houses to Canada by the same method or by having packages mailed directly to Canada with false paperwork and without the required declaration or permits. One part of the criminal scheme was to falsely describe the wildlife in order to conceal Guan’s wildlife smuggling. In the case of a rhino horn purchased in Florida, the Customs paperwork claimed it was a “Wooden Horn” worth $200.

At the same time that Guan was being arrested in New York, wildlife enforcement officers with Environment Canada executed a search warrant at Guan’s antique business in Canada. Environment Canada and Justice Canada are working cooperatively with U.S. investigators and prosecutors. The Guan case is part of “Operation Crash,” a U.S. Fish & Wildlife and Justice Department crackdown on illegal trafficking in rhinoceros horns.

US clamps down on tusk trade

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Photos of elephant tusks weighing 105 pounds bound for Hong Kong, from Li's email. Photo courtesy USFWS.

Today, the U.S. government announced it will clamp down on the ivory trade, effectively halting commercial sales in response to global poaching concerns.

Below is a Department of the Interior explained on the ban:

  The ban will impose new restrictions on the import, export, and commercial sale of elephant ivory within the United States, with some limited exceptions. The limited exceptions include a narrow class of antiques that are exempt from regulation under the Endangered Species Act; and items imported for commercial purposes before international commercial trade in these species was prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Anyone proposing to sell elephant ivory or rhino horn would be responsible to document that they are exempt. The Service expects this to be a small fraction of the current domestic trade.

Anyone who currently owns legally obtained ivory may keep it.

The Service will:

Prohibit Commercial Import of African Elephant Ivory: All commercial imports of African elephant ivory, including antiques, will be prohibited.

Prohibit Commercial Export of Elephant Ivory: All commercial exports will be prohibited, except for bona fide antiques, certain noncommercial items, and in exceptional circumstances permitted under the Endangered Species Act.

Significantly Restrict Domestic Resale of Elephant Ivory: We will finalize a proposed rule that will reaffirm and clarify that sales across state lines are prohibited, except for bona fide antiques, and will prohibit sales within a state unless the seller can demonstrate an item was lawfully imported prior to 1990 for African elephants and 1975 for Asian elephants, or under an exemption document.

Clarify the Definition of “Antique”: To qualify as an antique, an item must be more than 100 years old and meet other requirements under the Endangered Species Act. The onus will now fall on the importer, exporter, or seller to demonstrate that an item meets these criteria.

Restore Endangered Species Act Protection for African Elephants: We will revoke a previous Fish and Wildlife Service special rule that had relaxed Endangered Species Act restrictions on African elephant ivory trade.

Support Limited Sport-hunting of African Elephants: We will limit the number of African elephant sport-hunted trophies that an individual can import to two per hunter per year.

Ivory crushed

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Seized ivory set for destruction. Photo courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service

Today, the government will smash tons of ivory that agents seized in trafficking operations over decades.

Dubbed “Ivory Crush,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operation is designed to send a message that the United States won’t tolerate poaching and the illegal tusk trade.

Although the Philippines, Kenya and Gabon have destroyed contraband ivory in those countries, this will be the first time the United States has destroyed large quantities.

“As a matter of principle and policy, the Service does not sell confiscated wildlife derived from endangered and threatened species,” Service officials said in a prepared release.

About 6 tons of tusks and carved ivory from African and Asian elephants that was seized since the 1980s is set for destruction. The service will keep some ivory for educational and training purposes.

The process involves crushing he confiscated ivory into pieces that are too small to be of commercial value.

Below is a video from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about Operation Crush.

Wild Web busts

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Sea turtle confiscated in Oklahoma as part of Operation Wild Web. Credit: USFWS

Wildlife authorities seized sea turtle skin boots, whale teeth, elephant and walrus ivory and pelts from a Sumatran tiger, leopard and jaguar during undercover operations target online sales of protected species.

Dubbed Operation Wild Web, the project also seized live migratory birds mounts and others items and led to charges against scores of traffickers in 16 states and three Asian countries, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Operation Wild Web resulted in 154 “buy/busts” in the United States: 30 involving federal wildlife crimes and 124 for violations of state wildlife laws. It also exposed online trafficking of live birds and tiger and leopard pelts in Southeast Asia.

Over a 14-day period in August 2012, approximately 70 Service special agents and conservation officers from State wildlife agencies across the country teamed up to investigate illegal online commerce in wildlife. Agents from the National Park Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration helped staff some of the 14 “taskforce” groups operating in the United States. Wildlife officers in Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia simultaneously ran their own in-country Operation Wild Web taskforces targeting illegal wildlife internet sales.

Additional information is at http://www.fws.gov/operationwildwebrphotos.html.

Wildlife cops team up with Antiques Roadshow

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking its show on the road.

In an eduational move, the serivce’s director, Dan Ashe, appeared on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow Monday, April 15, to talk horns. The service’s wildlife-cop role has been heavily involved in cracking down on illicit rhino horn trafficking, and Ashe talked about how the subject pops up in the antiques trade with the show’s host Mark Walberg and appraiser Lark Mason (no, I didn’t catch the episode, but I’ll look it up through internet reruns).

“We want to get the message out about protections for wildlife,” Ashe said in a prepared statement. “People don’t always think about this issue in terms of the antiques and collectibles that they own, buy, or sell. Anything that creates a demand for products made from endangered species can be bad news for survival of the animal in the wild, and that’s exactly what’s happening to rhinos.”

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service:

The Service-Antiques Roadshow partnership began after appraiser Lark Mason evaluated five rhino horn libation cups for a 2012 episode. While the value estimated topped all previous records for the series, the appraiser advised the owner that rhinos are a protected species and there are laws that affect the buying and selling of rhino parts and products.

Ashe’s segment was taped in July at the Cincinnati Zoo when Fish and Wildlife officials provided training to Antiques Roadshow appraisers, covering collectibles made of elephant ivory, rhino horn and sea turtle shell. Similar training will be offered this summer when the program takes its show to Baton Rouge, La. (to be aired in 2014, for those who plan their TV viewing schedule a year in advance).

Rhino horn is coveted in Asia for its alleged medicinal properties, and poaching is on the rise in Africa. South African authorities reported that some 668 rhinos were killed in that country in 2012.

For more information about some of the most commonly traded plant and animal species:




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