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At a court in Newark, New Jersey, on May 27, Zhifei Li, 30, was sentenced to nearly six years in prison after admitting he was the brains behind an international smuggling ring. In December he had pleaded guilty to 11 counts, including conspiracy, smuggling, illegal wildlife trafficking and making fake documents, in connection with his orchestration of a black market network that smuggled 30 raw rhino horns and objects made from rhino horn and elephant ivory, collectively worth more than $4.5m, out of the USA to China.

Li was the 'boss' of three US antiques dealers, including New York businessman Qing Wang. Items were smuggled to Hong Kong wrapped in duct or electrical tape or porcelain vases and then to Li in China, where he sold the raw rhino horns to factories that carved them into fake antiques. Leftover pieces were 'salvaged' for sale in the medicinal trade.

Last year, Qing (aka Jeffrey) Wang, a New York antiques dealer, who was among a group of linked defendants arrested in January and February 2013, pleaded guilty to conspiring to smuggle rhino horn and elephant ivory artefacts out of the US to Hong Kong in violation of US wildlife protection laws.

On December 5, 2013, Wang was sentenced to serve 37 months in Federal prison and three years of supervised release; he was also ordered to forfeit ivory items that remained in his possession.

Nationwide investigation

The smugglers were targeted as part of Operation Crash, an ongoing nationwide criminal investigation led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service that is addressing all aspects of US involvement in the black market rhino horn trade.

On January 10 this year, Irish national Michael Slattery, known to be a member of a crime organisation operating out of Ireland, was sentenced to 14 months in prison by a Federal judge in Brooklyn, New York, after having pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act in connection with rhino horn trafficking. Slattery was also ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and forfeit $50,000 in illegal proceeds.