US jails Chinese mastermind of rhino horn smuggling ring for six years

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 9:02pm

An antiques dealer from China has been sentenced to nearly six years in prison after admitting he was the mastermind of an international ring that specialised in smuggling rhinoceros horns and elephant ivory via Hong Kong.

Speaking through an interpreter, Li Zhifei, 30, expressed remorse and asked to be reunited with his sick four-year-old daughter in China.

Li pleaded guilty in December to 11 counts, including conspiracy, smuggling, illegal wildlife trafficking and making fake documents.

The US attorney's office says Li, operating through his business Overseas Treasure Finding, paid three antiques dealers in the US to help him smuggle the items to China. Prosecutors say the 30 smuggled rhino horns plus other objects made from the horns and from elephant ivory were worth about US$4.5 million.

The horns were allegedly shipped to Hong Kong and then the mainland wrapped in duct tape and hidden in porcelain vases. All species of the rhinoceros are protected under US and international law, and international trade in rhino horns and elephant ivory has been regulated since the mid-1970s.

Li was ordered to serve his sentence in the US before being deported to Shandong province. He was also ordered to forfeit US$3.5 million in proceeds from his criminal activity.

Paul Fishman, the US attorney for the district of New Jersey, praised what he said was one of the longest sentences ever imposed in the US for a wildlife smuggling offence.

"The multibillion-dollar illegal wildlife market is supplied by animal poaching of unthinkable brutality and fed by those willing to profit from such cruelty," Fishman said.

US magistrate Esther Salas said she hoped her sentencing would send a strong message to would-be poachers and smugglers in order to "prevent the innocent slaughter of these magnificent creatures".

Li was arrested as part of Operation Crash, a nationwide effort to prosecute those involved in the black market trade of rhinoceros horns and other protected species.