Guilty Plea in Rhino Smuggling Conspiracy
PLANO, Texas - A Texas man pleaded guilty Tuesday to his role in a $1 million smuggling ring that brought rhinoceros horns from the United States to China.
Ning Qiu, 43, of Frisco, Texas, worked as an Asian antique appraiser for seven years, prosecutors said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Don Bush took Qiu's plea Tuesday to a one-count information charging him with conspiracy to smuggle and violate the Lacey Act.
The plea contains Qiu's admission "to acting as one of the three antique dealers in the United States paid by Zhifei Li, the admitted 'boss' of the conspiracy, to help obtain wildlife items and smuggle them to Li via Hong Kong."
A federal judge in Newark, N.J., sentence Li just last month to 70 months in prison for leading the smuggling ring.
While working at an auction house in Dallas as an appraiser of Asian artwork and antiques, Qiu specialized in carvings made from rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory, according to a statement by the Justice Department.
Qiu said he met Li through that job in 2009. Li would often instruct Qiu as to what raw and carved rhinoceros horns and elephant ivory he should buy and how much to pay, according to Qiu's plea.
Qiu said Li would then transfer funds directly into Qiu's bank accounts in the U.S. and China, and that Qiu would arrange for the items to be smuggled to a location in Hong Kong that Li provided.
Prosecutors said that Qiu purchased and smuggled to Hong Kong at least five raw rhinoceros horns weighing at least 20 pounds between 2009 and 2013.
To do so, he wrapped the items in duct tape, hid them in porcelain vases and lied to customs by labeling the packages as porcelain vases or handicrafts.
Li's guilty plea included an admission that he sold 30 smuggled, raw rhinoceros horns worth approximately $3 million - approximately $17,500 per pound - to factories in China where raw rhinoceros horns are carved into Zuo Jiuantiques, a Mandarin phrase that means "to make it as old."
Some Chinese people believe that drinking from rhinoceros horn "libation" cups with bring good health. The giant, prehistoric beasts are protected by U.S. and international laws. More than 90 percent of wild rhino populations have been slaughtered illegally since the 1970s because of the price their horns can bring, the Justice Department said. "South Africa, for example, has witnessed a rapid escalation in poaching of live animals, rising from 13 in 2007 to more than 618 in 2012," prosecutors said in the statement. Humans are the only predator of the rhinoceros. Prosecutors said increasing demand is partly responsible for fueling a thriving black market that includes fake antiques made from recently hunted rhinoceros.
Prosecutors will recommend that Qiu serve a 25-month prison sentence and pay a $150,000 fine.
A sentencing date before U.S. District Judge Richard Schell has not yet been determined.
Prosecutions such as these represent the successes of Operation Crash, a nationwide effort to stop the black market trade of rhinoceros horns and other protected species. The operation takes its name from the term crash given for a herd of rhinoceros.