Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

In Rush to Smuggle Rhino Horn, Some Unexpected Players

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

In Rush to Smuggle Rhino Horn, Some Unexpected Players

Article excerpt

For international criminal organizations, trading rhino horn can be a highly profitable and safer venture than the drug trade, and the activity is fueling a slaughter of the species.

They definitely did not look like ordinary big-game hunters, the stream of slender young Thai women who showed up on the veld wearing tight blue jeans and sneakers.

But the rhinoceros carcasses kept piling up around them, and it was only after dozens of these hulking, relatively rare animals were dead and their precious horns sawed off that an extravagant scheme came to light.

The Thai women, it ends up, were not hunters at all. Many never even squeezed off a shot. Instead, they were prostitutes hired by a criminal syndicate based 9,600 kilometers, or about 6,000 miles, away in Laos to exploit loopholes in big-game hunting rules and get its hands on as many rhino horns as possible -- horns that are now worth more than gold.

"These girls had no idea what they were doing," said Paul O'Sullivan, a private investigator in Johannesburg who helped crack the case. "They thought they were going on safari."

The rhino horn rush has gotten so out of control that it has exploded into a worldwide criminal enterprise, drawing in a surreal cast of characters -- not just Thai prostitutes, but also Irish gangsters, Vietnamese diplomats, Chinese scientists, veterinarians, copter pilots, antiques dealers and recently an American rodeo star looking for a quick buck who used Facebook to find some horns.

Driven by a common belief in Asia that ground-up rhino horns can cure cancer and other ills, the trade has also been embraced by criminal syndicates that normally traffic drugs and guns, but have branched into the underground animal parts business because it is seen as "low risk, high profit," U.S. officials say.

"Get caught smuggling a kilo of cocaine, you will receive a very significant prison sentence," said Ed Grace, a deputy chief with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But with a kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of rhino horn, he added, "you may only get a fine."

The typical rhino horn is about 60 centimeters, or 2 feet, long and weighs about 4.5 kilograms, much of it formed from the same substance as fingernails. Yet it can fetch about $66,000 a kilo, or nearly $30,000 a pound -- more than crack cocaine -- and conservationists worry that this "ridiculous price," as one wildlife manager put it, could drive rhinos into extinction.

Gangs are so desperate for new sources of horn that criminals have even smashed into dozens of glass museum cases all across Europe to snatch them from exhibits.

"Astonishment and rage, that's what we felt," said Paolo Agnelli, a manager at the Florence Museum of Natural History, after three rhino horns were stolen last year, including a very rare one from 1824.

U.S. agents recently staged a cross-country undercover rhino horn sting operation, called Operation Crash, "crash" being the term for a herd of rhinos.

Among the 12 people arrested: Wade Steffen, a champion steer wrestler from Texas, who pleaded guilty in May to trafficking dozens of horns that he found through hunters, estate sales and Facebook; and two members of an Irish gang -- the same gang suspected of breaking into the museums in Europe.

In an e-mail to an undercover agent, an Irish gangster bragged: "Believe me WE NEVER LOSES A HORN TO CUSTOMS, we have so many contacts and people payed off now we can bring anything we want out of nearly any country into Europe."

Corruption is a huge element, just like in the illegal ivory trade, in which rebel groups, government armies and threadbare hunters have been wiping out tens of thousands of elephants throughout Africa, selling the tusks to sophisticated criminal networks that move them across the globe with the help of corrupt officials.

Here in South Africa, home to the majority of the world's last surviving 28,000 rhinos or so, the country is throwing just about everything it has to stop the slaughter -- thousands of rangers, the national army, a new spy plane, even drones -- but it is losing. …

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