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Feds cut off international rhino horn smuggling ring

Photo by Arno Meintjes via Flickr Creative Commons

20 rhino horns, diamonds, Rolex watches, approximately $1 million in cash, and $1 million in gold bars were seized from suspected smugglers last weekend when more than 150 federal agents led raids across several states in a coordinated effort to interrupt an international ring trafficking in sawed-off rhinoceros horns.

Deputy chief of law enforcement for the wildlife service, Edward Grace, said the arrests and seizures followed an 18-month investigation by federal wildlife agents. 

Three of the alleged smugglers caught in Southern California were 49-year-old Jimmy Kha, his 41-year-old girlfriend Mai Nguyen, and Kha's 26-year-old son Felix, the L.A. Times reports. The suspects -- arrested last week at Los Angeles International Airport -- face four counts each of rhino horn trafficking in violation of federal laws protecting rare and endangered species. 

"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.

Believing the rare horns from black and white rhinos can cure cancer, buyers in Vietnam and China will pay prices of $20,000 to $25,000 per pound. Poachers slaughter the animal to get horn, and have even killed rhinos for the nub that remained after some game reserves, attempting to protect by animals, tranquilized them and removed the horn preemptively. 

About 450 rhinos were poached in South Africa last year, nearly four times as many as in 2009. African herds have declined by 90% since the 1970s, with 20,000 white rhinos left, mostly in South Africa, and 5,000 black rhinos scattered across the continent. Their Asian cousins are teetering on extinction.

Wildlife officials intercepted at least 18 shipments of rhino horns from Texas and from the owner of a Missouri auction house that trades in exotic animals, after suspected trafficker Wade Steffen, travelling with his wife and his mother, was found with $337,000 inside carry-on luggage at Long Beach airport earlier this month.

According to law enforcement sources and court records, the packages were opened, identified by scientists, repackaged, sent to Kha's or Nguyen's Southern California businesses, and then presumably smuggled out of the country. 

Investigators tracked the movements of hundreds of thousands of dollars though bank wire transfers, including to accounts in China, and travel records of suspects who flew between Los Angeles and Asia, as well as between California, Texas and Missouri.