A Chinese citizen and ringleader of an international $4.5 million ivory smuggling operation pleaded guilty at a federal court in New Jersey on Thursday.
The man named Zhifei Li, 29, had admitted to selling 30 raw rhino horns for around $17,500 each to Chinese factories that carve them into cups and trinkets, according to Reuters. Of the horns Li sold, 13 of them had once belonged to black rhinos–a critically endangered animal with a population of less than 5,000.
When transporting the horns, he would wrap them in duct tape then hide them in porcelain vases labeled as handicrafts on customs documents. Once through, they were handed over to his connections in Hong Kong then to factories in mainland China.
“The brutality of animal poaching, wherever it occurs, feeds the demand of a multibillion-dollar illegal international market,” said Paul Fishman, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, at a press conference. “Zhifei Li’s conviction is a warning to those who would be lured by the profits of dealing in cruelty.”
Li pleaded guilty to 11 counts of smuggling, illegal wildlife trafficking and lying on customs documents, and he could face up to ten years in prison for each charge.
Three Chinese nationals were arrested last month in Tanzania after authorities had found 706 ivory tusks hidden among garlic-filled snail shells in their home. The 1.9 tons of ivory were believed to represent the deaths of over 350 elephants.
In China, rhino horns are often turned into ornamental trinkets or used as medicine when shaved into a powder, however, the claim that ivory contains any significant healing properties for humans has pretty much been dismantled by experts.
According to a PBS report:
In 1990, researchers at Chinese University in Hong Kong found that large doses of rhino horn extract could slightly lower fever in rats (as could extracts from Saiga antelope and water buffalo horn), but the concentration of horn given by a traditional Chinese medicine specialist are many many times lower than used in those experiments. In short, says Amin, you’d do just as well chewing on your fingernails.
Unfortunately, China doesn’t ban ivory trade within the country, but sets a bar for legal market consumption at five tons each year.
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