LOS ANGELES – Federal wildlife investigators in California and other states have cracked an international smuggling ring that trafficked for years in sawed-off rhinoceros horns, which fetch stratospheric prices in Vietnam and China for their supposed cancer-curing powers.
More than 150 federal agents and other local enforcement officers raided homes, businesses and made several arrests in a dozen states over the weekend, including three alleged traffickers in Southern California.
“By taking out this ring of rhino horn traffickers, we have shut down a major source of black market horn and dealt a serious blow to rhino horn smuggling both in the U.S. and globally,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.
The Fish and Wildlife Service seized more than $1 million in cash, $1 million in gold bars, and diamonds and Rolex watches, along with 20 rhino horns in the raids. Much of that was found at Jimmy Kha’s import-export business in Westminster, in his safety-deposit boxes and at his Garden Grove, Calif., home, according to law enforcement officials.
Kha, 49, his girlfriend, Mai Nguyen, 41, of Highland and Kha’s son Felix, 26, each face four counts of rhino horn trafficking in violation of federal laws protecting rare and endangered species.
A global run on the rare horns from black and white rhinos has led to an onslaught of poaching in Africa, as well as the ransacking of European museums by organized crime syndicates. In the United States, traders are obtaining and illegally transporting horns from auction houses, antique shops and hunters’ trophy walls.
Most of the horns end up in Vietnam, or sometimes China, where a misconception that they can cure cancer makes them “worth more than crack, heroin or gold, pound for pound,” said Crawford Allan, North American director of TRAFFIC, a World Wildlife Fund program that monitors wildlife trade.
About 450 rhinos were poached in South Africa last year, nearly four times as many as in 2009. African herds have declined by 90 percent since the 1970s, with 20,000 white rhinos left in South Africa and 5,000 black rhinos scattered across the continent. Their Asian cousins are teetering on extinction.
With prices reaching $20,000 to $25,000 per pound, the lucrative enterprise has turned some wardens into “khaki-collared criminals,” assisting poachers who at times arrive by helicopter and use automatic weapons to shoot the animals dead and then hack off their horns with machetes.
It’s possible to remove most of a rhino’s horn by tranquilizing the animal rather than killing it. Some game reserves have tried to protect rhinos, by pre-emptively removing the horns. But poachers kill them anyway for the nub that remains.