Federal wildlife investigators in California and other states say they have cracked an international smuggling ring that trafficked for years in sawed-off rhinoceros horns, which fetch stratospheric prices in Vietnam and China for their supposed cancer-curing powers.
More than 150 federal agents and other local enforcement officers raided homes and businesses and made several arrests in a dozen states over the weekend, including three alleged traffickers in Southern California.
"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.
The Fish and Wildlife Service seized more than $1 million in cash, $1 million in gold bars, diamonds and Rolex watches, along with 20 rhino horns, in the raids. Much of that was found at Jimmy Kha's import-export business in Westminster, in his safety-deposit boxes and at his Garden Grove home, according to law enforcement officials.
Kha, 49, his girlfriend, Mai Nguyen, 41, of Highland and Kha's son Felix, 26, each face four counts of rhino horn trafficking in violation of federal laws protecting rare and endangered species.
The father and son both remain in jail since their arrests last week at Los Angeles International Airport. Nguyen, who owns a nail shop in Highland, is set to be released on $50,000 bail. Their attorneys declined comment.
A global run on the rare horns from black and white rhinos has led to an onslaught of poaching in Africa, as well as the ransacking of European museums by organized crime syndicates. In the United States, traders are obtaining and illegally transporting horns from auction houses, antique shops and hunters' trophy walls.
Most of the horns end up in Vietnam, or sometimes China, where a misconception that they can cure cancer makes them "worth more than crack, heroin or gold, pound for pound," said Crawford Allan, North American director of TRAFFIC, a World Wildlife Fund program that monitors wildlife trade.
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.
With prices reaching $20,000 to $25,000 per pound, the lucrative enterprise has turned some wardens into "khaki-collared criminals," assisting poachers who at times arrive by helicopter and use automatic weapons to shoot the animals dead and then hack off their horns with machetes.
It's possible to remove most of a rhino's horn by tranquilizing the animal rather than killing it. Some game reserves have tried to protect rhinos, which weigh a ton or more, by preemptively removing the horns. But poachers kill them anyway for the nub that remains.
Alarmed by the slaughter, Lixin Huang, the president of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco, has explicitly refuted the claims of a "cancer cure," which she says has no basis in the literature of traditional Chinese medicine. The horns, which consist of keratin similar to hooves, nails and hair, had been used over thousands of years to treat such conditions as typhoid fever, convulsions and carbuncles.
The Chinese government has forbidden the use of rhino horn since 1993. The U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species banned the sale of most rhino parts decades ago. This international ban is enforced in the U.S. through the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act, which make interstate commerce and international trade illegal.
Even so, an emerging wealthy class in Asia considers the horns both a good investment and the ultimate status-enhancing gift, said Allan, whose organization sent a delegation to Vietnam to investigate the surging demand and uncover the source of the unfounded rumor that it's a cancer cure.
To them, Allan said, "It's like giving the gift of life."
The arrests and seizures sprang from an 18-month investigation, called Operation Crash, so-named because "crash" is another name for a herd of rhinos, said Edward Grace, deputy chief of law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The undercover operation was forced into the open when accused trafficker Wade Steffen of Hico, Texas, and his wife and mother were stopped by Transportation Security Administration officials at Long Beach Airport on Feb. 9 with $337,000 in their carry-on luggage, authorities said. A TSA officer found $20,000 in $100-bill bundles in Molly Steffen's purse. "That money is not mine," Molly Steffen said, according to a federal affidavit. "I assume my husband put it in my purse."
Merrily Steffen, the mother, allowed officers to view the pictures on the memory card of a camera she was carrying, according to the affidavit. It contained images of "stacks of $100 bills bound with rubber bands" and "rhinoceros horns being weighed on scales."
Wade Steffen is incarcerated in Texas. Neither his wife nor his mother was arrested.
During their probe, wildlife officials had intercepted at least 18 shipments of rhino horns from the Steffen family and the owner of a Missouri auction house that trades in live and stuffed exotic animals, court records show. The packages were opened, the horns were identified by scientists and the items were repackaged and sent along to Kha's export business or Nguyen's nail shop, then presumably smuggled out of the country, according to law enforcement sources and court records.
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.