The Department of Justice and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service display some of the items recently seized by agents in raids in Southern California, Feb. 23 in Torrance, Calif. Seven people have been arrested on charges of trafficking in endangered rhinoceros horns in Los Angeles, Newark, N.J., and New York. Photo by Chuck Bennett/The Associated Press.
Illinois agents help break up rhino horn smuggling ring
The State Journal-Register
Wildlife agents with Illinois ties helped break up a smuggling ring accused of illegally selling rhinoceros horns to Asia where they bring up to $25,000 per pound.
Court papers read like a Hollywood movie script, with millions of dollars in cash, gold, diamonds and Rolex watches traded for rhino horns. Deals went down as far away as California and as nearby as a truck stop near Peoria.
The effort, known as “Operation Crash,” is described as one of the biggest in the history of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s law enforcement efforts.
A rhinoceros herd is known as a “crash.”
The black rhinoceros is critically endangered, with fewer than 5,000 animals remaining in southeast Africa.
“We targeted a species that is in extreme peril, really on the brink of extinction,” said Tim Santel, resident agent in charge with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in Springfield. “We took out a full-court press to save this magnificent animal.”
As a result of Operation Crash, seven people were arrested in a week’s time.
One suspected rhino horn supplier was stopped Feb. 9 at an airport in California with $337,000 in cash.
In Illinois, an undercover officer sold a black rhinoceros mount on Feb. 18 and later observed the buyer trying to saw off the horns.
Search warrants were executed in at least five states by agents from the Fish and Wildlife Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security.
Thirty-seven rhino horns were seized.
Santel was tapped to lead a team of a dozen agents from around the country, including senior special agent Mike Merida, who attended Illinois State University and is now is based in Dallas, Texas.
“The reason we started looking into this issue was the alarming amount of poaching going on is South Africa,” said Edward Grace, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s deputy chief of law enforcement.
Grace also has connections to Illinois. He grew up in Wheaton and attended the University of Illinois.
Poachers take a deadly toll
South Africa lost 448 rhinos to poachers in 2011 – a record year. In 2009, poachers killed 122 rhinos.
For thousands of years, the rhinoceros horns have been ground up into powder and mixed with water to treat a variety of ailments.
The horns also are carved into dagger handles that signify religious devotion and ceremonial cups that demonstrate wealth and social standing.
Rhino horn is made up mostly of keratin, the same protein that is found in skin, fingernails, hair and the hooves of animals.
“There’s this belief that rhino horn cures cancer,” Santel said. “The story goes, some government official proclaimed his cancer was cured, and because of his prominence, it caused a stir for everyone wanting to get their hands on rhino horn.”
A typical pair of rhino horns weighs from eight to 15 pounds.
In the United States, horns cut from trophy mounts - some decades old – are being sold and turned into cash, Santel said. Many dealers just replace the original horn with a replica.
Big game hunters were allowed to take black rhinos before they were protected in the 1970s.
Some populations of white rhinos still are hunted today, Santel said, and hunters can legally bring the trophies home to the U.S. However, the law won’t allow the parts to be commercialized.
“With the buying and selling of endangered species, we are only creating demand for these species,” Grace said. “The rhinoceros isn’t found in the United States, but by us buying and selling these species, we are fueling the trade.”
And there is more work to be done.
“When (the rhino horn supplier) got stopped at the airport with $337,000, it sped up the case,” Grace said. “It’s a continuing investigation.”
Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528.
Black rhinoceros population: 4,838
White rhinoceros population: 20,000
The black rhinoceros also is called the “hook-lipped” rhinoceros. The lip is one key difference between black and white rhinos. The white rhinoceros is also called the “square-lipped” rhinoceros. “White” comes from the Dutch word “weit” or wide, which refers to the muzzle, not the animal’s color.
Most African rhinos are found in southeast Africa, with the highest concentration in South Africa.
Sumatran rhino population: Fewer than 200
Javan rhinoceros population: Fewer than 50
Greater one-horned rhinoceros population: 3,200
Source: World Wildlife Fund
Rhino horns sold close to home
One of the defendants charged in “Operation Crash” allegedly bought a black rhinoceros head from an undercover officer during a meeting at a truck stop not far from Peoria.
According to court papers, David Hausman, an antiques expert from New York, traveled to Illinois to make the purchase.
“People don’t realize this trade isn’t just going on in the big cities,” said Edward Grace, deputy chief of the office of law enforcement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Hausman allegedly told the undercover officer the Fish and Wildlife Service was actively investigating the sale of rhinoceros horn and said they should not communicate through e-mail.
He also tried to “get around” endangered species act regulations by attempting to claim the mount was more than 100 years old, even though the undercover officer said it was not.
The undercover officer was offered $8,500 for the mount.
A second officer made the sale while under surveillance by other agents at the truck stop.
Following the sale, officers followed Hausman to a WalMart in Princeton where he purchased a wood hammer, two screwdrivers and a pry bar.
He later stopped at a motel in Chicago where undercover officers “observed Hausman bent over in the back of the seat of (his rental car) engaging in action that appeared … to be Hausman attempting to cut and/or pry the horns from the rhinoceros mount.”
Park ranger among South African rhino poachers charged
JOHANNESBURG — South African wildlife officials say a ranger is among four Kruger National Park workers arrested on rhinoceros poaching charges.
In a statement Wednesday, the national parks department said the four were arrested Tuesday by officers investigating the killing of two rhinos whose corpses were found earlier that day. The animals had been shot and stripped of their horns.
The parks department said the ranger arrested is among scores who have been striking for higher pay since early February.
Across the country, 80 rhinos have been poached since the beginning of 2012, more than half in Kruger, the country’s flagship park. Last year, a record 448 rhinos were poached in South Africa.
—The Associated Press