US busts rhino horn smuggling syndicate

Tony Carnie

South Africa is the epicentre of the global rhino war, with more than 1 000 rhinos slaughtered here in the past four years.

Yet organised-crime syndicates are also scouring almost every corner of the world for stocks of this increasingly scarce commodity.

Their hunger for horns seems to know no bounds. Any horn – old, new or poisoned – is being snapped up in an unprecedented buying spree at a time when the black-market horn price now equals or exceeds that of gold or cocaine.

Last month, at least eight members of an international rhino horn smuggling syndicate were arrested in the US during a nationwide bust involving more than 150 US special agents and officials.

Known as Operation Crash, one of the biggest fish netted so far is Jin Zhao Feng, a Chinese national arrested at Los Angeles international airport after allegedly supervising the illegal shipment of dozens of horns from the US to China.

In nearby Long Beach, California, special agents also arrested Jimmy Kha, his girlfriend Mai Nguyen and his son Felix Kha. All are US nationals of Vietnamese extraction. Kha and his son had allegedly travelled to China and Vietnam several times from their base in Long Beach over the past few years after siphoning up dozens of rhino horns from almost every corner of the US.

Though there are no rhinos living in the Americas (other than a few small populations in safari parks and zoos), the US still has a whole heap of old rhino heads and horns lying about. Most of the dead rhino heads hang on walls in homes and trophy rooms in several states, mementoes of big-game hunting safaris going back at least a century.

The exact origin of the 37 rhino horns seized last month remains unclear, although most appear to originate from old trophies which may have been treated historically with arsenic, DDT and other powerful toxins to preserve them.

According to arrest warrants and affidavits filed in a California court on February 16, it is still legal for old African white rhino trophies to be bought and sold domestically, although the horns of black rhinos cannot be sold to a buyer in another state of the US.

The court papers allege that the Kha family received nearly 40 horns which had been shifted domestically by Fedex and UPS courier services to Jimmy Kha’s porcelain company, Win Lee Corporation, or to Mai Nguyen’s nail salon, Joline’s Nails.

Other personalities implicated in the court papers include Darin “Scott” Ziebarth, former police chief of the town of Macon, Missouri.

Then there is Jim Lolli, a taxidermist and big game trophy and exotic animal dealer, also from Macon. Lolli is a member of Lolli Brothers, which sells or auctions anything from horses to zebras, old cowboy guns, samurai swords, stuffed bears and the occasional rhino horn skull.

Texan big game trophy dealer Jim Brommel was also alleged to have posted several rhino horns to the Kha Brothers via the US Postal Service.

Brommel is the owner of the Corner Shoppe in Austin, Texas, and co-ordinator of World Class Big Game Trophy Mount and Western Auction in neighbouring Fort Worth.

Other suspects include former rodeo cowboy and steer wrestler Wade Steffen of Hico, Texas, his mother Merrily and his wife Molly.

Also named in the criminal indictment is Lance Jowers, also from Hico, who allegedly bought three rhino horn trophies at a wildlife auction in Fort Worth and then sold them to Wade Steffen in a transaction conducted in a red Dodge bakkie.

On the East Coast, police arrested antiques expert David Hausman in Manhattan, New York, and Amir Even-Ezra and an eighth (as yet unnamed) suspect in New Jersey.

Full details on some aspects of Operation Crash were presented in the US Circuit Court in Los Angeles last month. Wildlife special agent Lizz Darling told Judge Jay Gandhi that the Kha family bought rhino horns from Steffen and other buyers for thousands of dollars, often in cash.

Early last month, she said, airport security officials had found $300 000 (about R2.3 million) in $100 bills in the carry-on baggage of Steffen and his wife Molly, along with keys to a safety deposit box.

“I am informed that the black market price for rhinoceros horn (in Asia) is as high as approximately $25 000 per pound (about R412 000/kg).”

Over the past few months, special agents had studied the travel and bank records of several rhino horn smuggling suspects. Bank records suggested that although suspect Felix Kha’s transactions were structured to conceal the payment of large single deposits, there was evidence of more than 30 deposits or transfers totalling $52 500 to a bank account in China, while more than 100 relatively small transfers totalling more than $400 000 had been made to Wade Steffen.