Feds snare rhino horn smuggling ring

A Chinese businessman convicted of smuggling more than $4.5 million worth of rhinoceros horns and elephant ivory out of the United States will spend the next 70 months in prison, the Justice Department announced this week.

Zhifei Li, 30, admitted to selling 30 smuggled rhino horns valued at about $17,500 per pound in China. Li would purchase rhino horns on the U.S. black market and then bring them back to his country, where they can be carved into fake antiques and sold at a hefty profit to consumers.

Rhinos are a protected under international law.

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“Li was the ringleader of a criminal enterprise that spanned the globe and profited from an illegal trade that is pushing endangered animals toward extinction,” Sam Hirsch, acting assistant attorney general, said in a statement.  “As this case clearly demonstrates, rhino trafficking is increasingly organized, well-financed, and a threat to the rule of law. The United States is resolved to bring wildlife traffickers to justice.”

The Obama administration has been trying to crack down on illegal wildlife trafficking. In February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced new rules prohibiting people from traveling with or selling products that contain elephant ivory. 

But the agency carved out an exemption to the rule earlier this month for traveling musicians, who had complained they would no longer be able to play many of their antique instruments, which contain ivory, in overseas orchestras under the new rules. 

In addition to elephant ivory, federal officials say they are dealing with a rise in rhino horn trafficking; the two are often linked in law enforcement circles.

Li, who owned Overseas Treasure Finding in Shandong, China, was arrested during a sting operation at a Miami hotel in January 2013 after purchasing two black rhino horns for $59,000 from an undercover agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Li worked with three antique dealers in the U.S. to locate and purchase rhino horns on the black market, give them directions about how to smuggle the items out of the country, and then pay people in Hong Kong to smuggle the items further to him in mainland China, according to the Justice Department. 

One of Li's co-conspirators, Quiang Wang, who ran an antique shop in the U.S., was sentenced to 37 months in prison last December.

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