South Africa is undoubtedly the epicentre of the global rhino war, with more than 1 000 of these giant horned beasts 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.

In February, for example, 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 other officials.

In what is 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 rhino horns from the US to China.

The name of the undercover operation is taken from “crash”, the collective noun for a group of rhinos.

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 in February 2012 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 from natural decomposition and insect attack.

Photographs released by the US Fish and Wildlife Service also show a number of roughly carved horn artefacts, along with the preserved feet of rhino (once used as ornaments or doorstops).

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.

“Evidence obtained in this investigation indicates that Jimmy Kha and Felix Kha have been involved in purchasing rhino horns from various sources since at least 2008.”

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 pick-up truck.

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.

Responding to queries from The Mercury, US Fish and Wildlife deputy chief Edward Grace confirmed that some of the trophy horns were imported within the past 10 years and that others might have arrived from Africa more recently. He indicated that if a rhino was hunted illegally in SA, the hunter could still be prosecuted in the US for violating foreign laws in terms of the Lacey Act.

Full details on some aspects of Operation Crash were presented in the US Circuit Court in Los Angeles in February.

Wildlife Special Agent Lizz Darling told Judge Jay Gandhi that the Khas bought rhino horns from Wade Steffen and other buyers for thousands of dollars, often in cash.

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

Darling said there was a thriving black market demand for rhino horns in Asia for good luck charms, medicinal purposes or for ornamental carving.

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

She noted that people involved in illegal business ventures often used safe deposit boxes to store or conceal large volumes of cash, knowing that banks could notify law enforcement agencies if they deposited large sums of cash.

Over the past few months, special agents had also 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 were made to Wade Steffen.

Jimmy Kha had flown to China 10 times over the past four years. Felix Kha had flown to China 12 times and five times to Vietnam over the past decade. - The Mercury Special Investigation

* E-mail Tony: [email protected]