China and the rhino horn trade

By Julian Rademeyer

Li Zhifei was the unlikely leader of an international crime ring. According to his business card, Li owned a small antique business in Jinan, the capital of China’s Shandong province. It was called “Overseas Treasure Finding” and Li was its treasure hunter. He boasted a small, but exclusive clientele of wealthy men who, for the most part, collected porcelain, bronze and rarities from long-dead dynasties. But there were three of Li’s customers with more illicit tastes. And, for close on two years, he eagerly obliged them.

On January 30, 2013, Li was arrested in a hotel room in Miami Beach in Florida. A grainy framegrab from a surveillance video (shown, right) shows an earnest, bespectacled and utterly unremarkable man in his late twenties sitting uncomfortably in a chair. He is dwarfed by the oversized television fixed to the wall above his head. A bag is slung over his right shoulder. To his left, on a side table, is wad of cash; about US$60,000 in all. In his hands he holds a rhino horn. Unseen is the undercover federal agent who lured him to the room with the promise of cut-price contraband.

For some time – as part of a broader investigation into the illegal trade in rhino horn, codenamed Operation Crash – the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) had been piecing together Li’s movements and business dealings. Li, they later said, had overseen an international  “black market network” that had smuggled at least 25 “raw” rhino horns (many from trophies brought back to the US by big game hunters) and a variety of carved ivory and rhino horn objets d’art – worth around US$4.5-million – from the US to China.

Three US antique dealers had conspired with Li, buying up “raw horn”, ivory, libation cups and other carvings at his behest. The items would be shipped to Hong Kong, often thickly wrapped in duct-tape to conceal their appearance or hidden in vases or packaged with false customs and shipping documents. From there they were eventually smuggled to China.

But how great is the trade with China? How much horn is being trafficked? And is the horn being used for medicinal purposes or, as the Li case suggests, carved and sold to collectors? And what of Chinese organised crime syndicates? Are they becoming involved in what has proved to be such a lucrative business for kingpins in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand?

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