Published 28 May 2014

Rhino horn smuggling ringleader receives 70 month jail sentence

Washington DC, USA, 28th May 2014—Zhifei Li, the owner of an antique business in China has received a 70 month prison term—one of the longest sentences to be imposed in the United States for a wildlife smuggling offence—for his role in trafficking 30 rhinoceros horns and numerous rhino horn and elephant ivory artifacts from the US to China. 

Li purchasing rhino horns from an undercover USFWS agent © New Jersey U.S. Attorney's Office

In addition to the prison term, Li was also ordered to serve two years of supervised release and to forfeit USD3.5 million in proceeds from his criminal activity. 

Li was arrested in Florida in January 2013 following his purchase of two endangered Black Rhinoceros horns from an undercover USFWS agent during “Operation Crash”—a nationwide effort led by the USFWS and the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute those involved in the black market trade of rhinoceros horns and other protected species.

Li, the owner of Overseas Treasure Finding in Shandong, China, later admitted he was the “boss” of three antique dealers in the US whom he paid to obtain wildlife items and smuggle them to him via Hong Kong. One of the individuals, Qiang Wang, was sentenced to 37 months in prison in December 2013. 

“Li was the ringleader of a criminal enterprise that spanned the globe and profited from an illegal trade that is pushing endangered animals toward extinction,” said Sam Hirsch, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division.  

“As this case clearly demonstrates, rhino trafficking is increasingly organized, well financed, and a threat to the rule of law.  The United States is resolved to bring wildlife traffickers to justice.”

Li had pleaded guilty before US District Judge Esther Salas to one count of conspiracy to smuggle and violate the Lacey Act; seven counts of smuggling; one count of illegal wildlife trafficking in violation of the Lacey Act; and two counts of making false wildlife documents.  Judge Salas imposed the sentence yesterday in Newark federal court. TRAFFIC provided technical assistance during the case.

“This is an outstanding enforcement case by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and US Department of Justice. It shows how the US and China are linked by the scourge of wildlife trafficking. The penalty here sends a strong message in the US and China that governments will deal harshly with wildlife criminals.” said Crawford Allan, Senior Director for TRAFFIC in the Americas. 

All species of rhinoceros are protected under United States legislation and commercial trade in rhinoceros horn is also not permitted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). 

US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Director Dan Ashe said: “The sentence handed down today serves notice to other organized trafficking and poaching rings that their crimes will not go unpunished.” 

“We will relentlessly work across the US government and with the international law enforcement community to destroy these networks, while strengthening protections for rhinos in the wild and reducing demand for horn in consumer countries.”