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Feds arrest 7 in rhino horn smuggling ring

February 23, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Federal investigators have broken up an unusual international smuggling ring that involves the trafficking of endangered rhinoceros horns.

Officials call it the biggest raid in fish and wildlife history.

"These individuals conspired to bring rhino horns from all over the country to a main port here in Los Angeles, where they were to connect with a Chinese national who would export those rhino horns to China at enormous profits," said U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte.

Over the past week, seven people were arrested. Four of the arrests were made in Los Angeles.

In coordinated raids in five states, agents seized 37 horns in a range of products made from them, $1 million in cash, and another million in gold, as well as diamonds and Rolex watches. Much of it was seized from an import/export business in Westminster and a Garden Grove home.

"The reason rhinos are so valuable right now is because there has been sort of a myth out there that rhinos cure cancer. The price has exorbitantly increased. Rhino horns sells for $25,000 a pound now over in some Asian countries," said Edward Grace of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The underground rhino trade threatens to reverse decades of conservation work in Africa and Asia.

"The rhinos are a critically endangered species. It's pretty much a crisis now with 444 being killed in South Africa alone last year," said Grace.

A pair of rhino horns can fetch $50,000 to $100,000 on the black market. And an end-product like a libation cup can fetch up to $300,000.

"It is viewed as somewhat of a status symbol in Asia, so there's been a growing demand," said Birotte.

Jin Zhao Feng, who investigators say is the leader of the operation, was arrested in Los Angeles. He made his first appearance in court Thursday. He and the others are charged with conspiracy to violate the Endangered Species Act. There could be more arrests as the investigation continues.