HONG KONG - By prioritizing the arrest of rhino-horn traffickers, the United States is signaling its ongoing commitment to the eradication of wildlife-related crime. Through stiff prison sentences and tactics like seizure of financial assets, authorities are moving aggressively to protect the world’s endangered rhino.
For those who may dismiss the seriousness of wildlife smuggling, U.S. special agent Edward Grace has a startling figure. He says the value of wildlife crime is estimated at up to $8 billion a year, making it the most lucrative illegal activity after arms and drugs trafficking.
Deputy chief of law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Grace says the same criminal syndicates peddling weapons and narcotics are driving species such as the rhino toward extinction.
Rhino poaching in South Africa, 2007-2012
“Criminals see the wildlife trade as low risk, high profit," said Grace. "Get caught smuggling a kilo of heroin, you will probably go to jail for the rest of your life if; smuggle a kilo of rhino horn, which nowadays is worth more than heroin or gold, in several countries worldwide you may only go to jail for a couple of years."
In response, the U.S. recently launched Operation Crash — "crash" is the collective noun for rhinos — in which more than 200 federal agents are targeting illegal commerce of the animal’s horn.
“When organized crime gets involved in any wildlife trade, they have the resources and the networks," said Grace. "So we make it a priority to go after these networks because they have the ability to do a lot of damage in a very short period of time."
Criminals dealing rhino horn are on notice that soft-sentencing is a thing of the past. In the last few weeks alone, two men with links to Vietnam were successfully convicted after an Operation Crash sting.
Jimmy and Felix Kha — found guilty of procuring horn, tax evasion and other offenses under the Lacey Act, one of the world’s oldest wildlife protection laws — are both facing up to 20-year terms in prison.
“We will continue this effort for as long as it takes to identify, apprehend and jail every bad guy engaged in this illicit trade in rhino horn," said Joseph Johns, chief of the environmental crimes section in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, California. "And we do expect more very significant arrests and sweeps to take place with regard to Operation Crash in the next year.”
To improve the odds of saving the rhino, Operation Crash is not simply targeting low-paid middlemen and couriers. Instead, Johns explains, agents are pursuing the bosses behind the trade, seizing their cars, homes and gold deposits, and draining their bank accounts of millions of dollars in cash.
“The goal is not just to punish the crime, but take the profit out of it," he said. "We want to eliminate this [crime] in this generation. We call them endangered species for a reason. We cannot just wait and sit on our hands.”
The U.S. has a proven record helping the recovery of species on the verge of extinction. In the 1980s, federal agencies were key players in eradicating the illegal caviar trade, saving the Caspian sturgeon.
However, the U.S. also is the world’s second largest wildlife market after China. As such, Johns says the country needs to be doubly committed to protecting endangered animals.
“It is ironic. On one hand, developed nations have the luxury to put in place environmental regulations and actually enforce them, protecting endangered species. But the flip side of that is that individuals in developed nations also have the monetary wealth to acquire and consume endangered species,” he said.
Calls for international cooperation
Besides the Khas, Operation Crash has netted a Chinese wildlife dealer, a cowboy, and an antiques expert, among others.
Such arrests highlight the international nature and diversity of wildlife criminals. Faced with such a global challenge, agent Grace says a transnational response is required.
“This is a crisis, and we are working with Interpol, with law enforcement in Africa and Asia," said Grace. "It is not a problem that will be solved by one country, but by numerous countries working together.”
As conservationists across Africa and Asia fight to save the rhino, U.S. law enforcement says it is committed to going after the criminal networks that profit from the poaching.