A California father and son team described by federal prosecutors as being “at the apex of the rhino horn smuggling pyramid” in the United States has been sentenced to more than three years in prison on federal wildlife smuggling and money laundering charges.
Vihn Chuong “Jimmy” Kha and his son, Felix Kha, ran a lucrative smuggling operation estimated at $2.5 million that prosecutors linked to a global network of poachers and buyers from China to South Africa, where an average of two of the endangered animals are killed each day.
After a 20-year decline, the traffic in rhino horns has climbed since 2008, and is now valued at up to $8 billion a year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, making it the most lucrative form of smuggling after arms and drug trafficking. The horns are prized in Asian culture as good luck charms, and are used for medicinal purposes. They have been carved into libation cups in Vietnam and China.
Jimmy Kha, 49, of Garden Grove, Calif., was sentenced to 42 months in federal prison and his son was sentenced to 46 months. The Khas must also pay a total of $20,000 in criminal fines and a $185,000 tax fraud penalty. His company, Win Lee Corporation, was ordered to pay $100,000 in fines. The Khas will also have to turn over about $800,000 in cash, gold, jewelry and precious stones, representing profits from their crimes, to the Multinational Species Conservation Fund for use in protecting rhinos in Africa.
The arrest of the Khas was part of Operation Crash, a nationwide crackdown involving several federal agencies including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Justice Department, and the Postal Inspection Service. The operation has netted at least 330 rhino horns in the past year, evidence of the United States’ growing role in the bloody rhino horn trade from Africa to Asia.
“We’ve broken up a smuggling ring that has been a major supplier to the global black market for rhino horns,” said Chris Tollefson, a spokesman for the U.S. Wildlife Service, after the Khas sentencing. “It represents a serious blow to this trafficking and a disincentive for smugglers and poachers wherever they operate.”
U.S. Officials said the Khas ran a smuggling ring linked to the purchase of at least 232 rhino horns, which were exported to Vietnam and China. Charges against the Khas, who were arrested in February 2012, included dealing in 128 horns from black rhinos, the most threatened of Africa’s two species of rhinos. There are only about 3,600 black rhinos left in the wild, down from about 70,000 in the late 1960s.
In sentencing papers, federal prosecutors noted the rising market for rhino horns in Asia. The Khas “knowingly chose to illegally supply rhino horn to meet the growing demand, thereby simply increasing that demand, ” according to court records.
Court documents said the men helped to drive the commercial value of rhino horns to nearly $25,000 per pound. The increasing commercial value of rhino horns in turn has driven heavily armed poachers back into the wild savannas of South Africa and other African countries. In 2011, during the peak of the Khas’ wildlife trafficking, 448 wild rhinos were slaughtered for their horns in South Africa alone, according to court documents.
The Khas’ accomplices included Jarrod Wade Steffen, a 32-year-old rodeo star from Texas who was arrested in February at Long Beach Airport in Los Angeles with $337, 000 hidden in his carry-on luggage, including in a child’s diaper. Steffen admitted buying and mailing rhino horns to the Khas.
Sentencing the duo on Wednesday, Judge Christina Snyder of the District Court of the Central District of California, said that she had traveled to Africa and personally witnessed the effects of poaching.
“There are parts of Africa where rhinos are completely gone,” she said. “Lord knows if they’ll ever come back.”
According to statistics released by South African conservation authorities on Wednesday, at least 313 rhinos have been poached in the country so far this year €“ 13 of them in the past week in the world-famous Kruger National Park.
Last year, at least 668 were illegally killed.
At least 13 suspects have been arrested so far in the ongoing wildlife smuggling investigation. In addition to rhino horns, law enforcement officials have seized at least $2 million in cash, precious stones and 273 gold ingots worth about $1 million during Operation Crash, named after the collective noun for rhinos.
Among those most recently arrested in the federal wildlife smuggling sting is Chinese oil executive Shusen Wei, who was caught on Feburary 2 as he attempted to board a a flight at JFK International Airport.
Wei was fleeing to China after admitting to investigators his involvement in a conspiracy to smuggle 20 “raw rhino horns” to Hong Kong. He was arrested after trying to bribe a US Fish & Wildlife special agent to close the case.
Wei, 44, pleaded guilty last month to smuggling rhino horns, as part of a smuggling ring headed by 28-year-old Chinese national Zhifei Li, who was indicted in February.
Another culprit netted in Operation Crash was Manhattan-based antiques dealer David Hausman, 67, who was arrested in a motel parking lot in February while he was in the process of sawing two black rhino horns off a trophy mount.
Agents then confiscated six black rhino horns and four rhino heads from his apartment, along with “numerous carved and partially carved rhino horns”, synthetic rhino horns and $28,000 in cash, according to court documents.
In the U.S. there is an antique exception for trade in rhino horns that are over 100 years old. Hausman, the court found, abused this exception by falsifying the age of the horns he was smuggling. He was sentenced to six months in prison in February, and fined more than $28,000 for obstruction of justice and creating false records in connection with illegal trafficking.
The investigation into rhino horn trafficking began in 2010, with the prosecution of two Irish citizens who bought rhino horns in the U.S. and shipped them to Ireland hidden with furniture.
In March 2010 the two men, Richard O’Brien and Michael Hegarty, of Limerick, Ireland, were caught trying to purchase rhino horns from with an undercover agent. Both were sentenced to six months in prison, three years probation and a $17, 600 fine.
“Trafficking in rhino horn is about greed, pure and simple,” said U.S. Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe. ” People who smuggle rhino horn, regardless of where it comes from, are no better than the poachers in Africa who hack off the horns of living rhinos and leave them to die a horrible death,”
Fiona Macleod is an environmental reporter at the Mail and Guardian in Johannesburg, South Africa, and founding director of the Oxpeckers Centre for Investigative Environmental Journalists in South Africa.