Antique dealing isn’t a business we would usually associate with nefarious criminal enterprise. Except if the “antiques” being dealt happen to be decorative cups made from the horns of a recently-killed and highly endangered species, that is. One antique dealer in Flushing, New York, Qiang Wang, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to breaking federal wildlife trafficking laws, according to the Department of Justice.
Wang was arrested for his role in a conspiracy to smuggle artifacts made from rhinoceros horns and ivory between New York, Hong Kong, and China. International trade agreements protect all rhinoceroses and elephants and forbid the transport of products made from horn and ivory without special permits.
Wang’s arrest was just one of many made as a part of “Operation Crash,” an ongoing federal investigation into illegal poaching and smuggling. (“Crash” is the term for a group of rhinos, like a gaggle of geese.)
If adopted, the new policy would promote safer rhino-horn farming: rhinos could be sedated while parts of their horns were cut off, and then the horns would grow back.
The crackdown kicked off last February when federal officials busted a pair of Los Angeles rhino-horn smugglers. Jimmy and Felix Kha admitted that they had bought over $2.5 million worth of rhino horns from U.S. suppliers, and then had bribed Vietnamese customs officials in preparation of exporting them overseas. In addition to the prison sentences they received, the judge in the case ordered that $800,000 in cash, gold, and jewels confiscated from them be given to a conservation group that protects rhinos in Africa.
Another antique dealer in New York who was busted at the same time was especially brazen—David Hausman was “offering his services to FWS special agents as an antiques expert who purportedly wanted to help the agency investigate this crime.” Meanwhile, he had several black market rhino horns and four entire rhino heads hidden in his Manhattan apartment.
The crackdown continues worldwide, as well. The same day Wang pleaded guilty in the U.S., customs officials in Hong Kong seized $5.3 million worth of rhino horns, elephant tusks, and leopard skins. Last month, the Czech Republic seized 24 rhino horns and arrested 16 smugglers.
The obvious motivation for this crime is money—there’s lots to be had in the game-smuggling game. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the going price for rhino horns is $29,500 per pound. In some Asian countries, cups carved from rhino horns supposedly bring good health to those who drink from them (curing everything from cancer to hangovers, apparently). Genuine antique cups aren’t necessarily illegal to buy or sell, but the demand is so high that dealers often carve new rhino horn into cups and pass them off as antiques, thereby increasing the demand for more and more new rhino.
Anyone who sees a picture of what rhinos look like after they’ve been dehorned will know the dire consequences of this deadly trade. And the South African Department of Environmental Affairs told the Associated Press that 514 rhinos had already been poached in 2013 as of the end of July; this year’s total will likely surpass last year’s of 633, which itself was eight times the total for 2008.
South Africa, where 75 percent of the world’s rhinos live, is also at the forefront of a counterintuitive move to legalize the rhino horn trade. If adopted, the new policy would promote safer rhino-horn farming: rhinos could be sedated while parts of their horns were cut off, and then the horns would grow back. A team of Australian conservationists signed on to the idea in March. As Kevin Charles Redmon explained at the time on Pacific Standard, lifting a trade ban would ideally increase the supply and lower the price, and thereby lower the incentive for poachers to slaughter the animals. However, Redmon wrote:
The black market will only collapse when legal horns are cheaper and easier to obtain than ill-gotten ones and penalties for operating outside the ‘central selling organization’ are severe. DNA signatures and radio chips will help trace licit horns, and exporters will be subject to regular audits. At the same time, buyers must demand cruelty- and conflict-free wares (think of efforts to demonize blood diamonds).
Legalization remains highly controversial among animal rights activists and wildlife conservationists. The World Wildlife Fund, the Environmental Investigation Agency, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare have all been critical of the idea. What if lifting the ban increases demand, as it did in fact following similar, previous experiments with the ivory market? Or what if a legal trade simply establishes a parallel but separate market, while illegal (whole) rhino horns and heads continue to sell underground?
Likewise, would legitimizing the sale of rhino cups encourage and validate the baseless myth that they actually have medicinal properties? Perhaps conservationists’ and governments’ efforts would be better directed toward fighting the very misconception that drives the demand in the first place.
South African officials who favor legalization say they have to choose the most expedient and effective plan of action, because they’re running out of time. Edna Molewa, South Africa’s minister of water and environmental affairs, told CNN last month that rhinoceros extinction is imminent. In fact, one of the subspecies, the western black rhino, was officially declared extinct just two years ago.
“The reality is that there are people who believe … that this thing [rhino horn] has something for them,” said Molewa, adding that it would be a long, hard process to convince them otherwise. “It will not take us a year, two years, 15 years; so by the time we are still doing this convincing and mobilization and actual awareness and education … our rhino population will have been decimated.”
Critics of South Africa’s plan say that ignoring the cause of the demand is misguided and unnecessary. Lucy Boddham-Whetham, former deputy director of Save the Rhino, argues, “It is inconsistent to support a legal trade while attempting to reduce demand by dispelling traditional beliefs about the medicinal qualities of rhino horn.”
Boddham-Whetham also points out that the earliest that South Africa’s legalization plan could be approved by the international Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species would be 2016. “The time required to put in the necessary foundations for legal trade in rhino horn could take up to 6-10 years,” she writes. “Do we have that much time?”