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Brendon Bosworth | Sep 21, 2012 06:00 AM

Running a rhinoceros horn smuggling operation is a lucrative affair. Take father-and-son team "Jimmy" and Felix Kha, from Garden Grove in California, for instance. The pair had to surrender $1 million in cash, $1 million worth of bling (gold ingots, precious stones, Rolex watches and other essential "playa" accessories) and two cars to the feds, who shut down their illegal business in February.

The Khas profited from trading in the illicit product, which sells for between $5,000 and $7,000 a pound in the U.S. and is typically shipped to places like China and Vietnam, where it can go for up to $25,000 per pound to buyers who value it for its purported medicinal qualities. Last week, they pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, smuggling and money laundering in a Los Angeles federal court. The pair now likely faces a term of five years in prison.

RhinoObviously, you won’t find rhinos roaming the West, except the odd few whiling away their days in zoos, but this case struck a nerve with me because poaching of the regal animals, which are protected by U.S. and international law, has been escalating in my home country -- home to between 70 and 80 percent of the global population of about 20,000 rhinos. The death toll is disturbing. Last year poachers killed 448 rhinos in South Africa, a record number, up from only 13 in 2007. Nineteen of last year’s victims were critically endangered black rhinos, a species that poachers are pushing closer to extinction. Between 1970 and 1992, the global population of black rhinos shrunk by 96 percent and today only 4,800 remain.

The market for rhino horn is -- like many commodities in scarce supply that involve the exploitation of living beings -- based on a desire for the forbidden goods and sometimes aided by complicit officials. The market is also fueled by a fair amount of wishful thinking regarding the properties of the horns, which, made of keratin, are closely related to horse hooves. In Vietnam, affluent buyers mix the powder made from grinding down horns with water or booze in the belief that it’s a good way to pep up after a long night partying. It is also touted as a cure for cancer (if it was I imagine the pharmaceutical companies would have cashed in on that bonanza a long time ago), and sometimes given as gifts to people in positions of power as a way to grease the social wheels. (More information on the uses of rhino horn can be found in this report from Traffic, an organization monitoring the global trade in wildlife and plants.)

People sipping back on a powdered rhino horn morning-after cocktail probably give little thought to the dead rhinos thousands of miles away in South Africa. But it’s a grisly scene: park rangers normally find the carcasses left to rot with a bloody gash where the horn used to be. Other times, poachers tranquilize the animals and saw off their horns, leaving them to wake up in pain. To their credit, the California smugglers traded in antiques and trophy horns, not freshly removed ones, according to their attorney, Evan Phillip Freed. But they still broke the law, since it is illegal to traffic such items across state lines, and they can only be exported and imported with a permit.

Wildlife trafficking in the U.S. obviously isn't limited to rhino horns. In 2010, HCN covered the federal clampdown on a notable butterfly smuggler. Western poachers have also been arrested for illegal trafficking in everything from Gila monsters to geoduck clams.

The sting on the smugglers in California is a small victory in the global campaign to put a stop to rhino horn trafficking, but with poachers becoming increasingly advanced in their hunting methods -- some are reported to use helicopters and night-vision gear to net rhinos -- it will take concerted efforts on the ground to truly protect the endangered megafauna.

Brendon Bosworth is a High Country News intern.

Image courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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