Auctioneer Accused of $2.4M Rhino Horn Conspiracy

MANHATTAN (CN) – A Beverly Hills auctioneer will appear before a New York federal judge next week on charges of conspiring to smuggle 15 horns from endangered rhinoceros abroad.

As laid out in the Feb. 15 indictment returned against him, Jacob Chait, 34, was engaged in at least eight separate deals or attempted deals involving 15 rhinoceros horns worth an estimated $2.4 million.

In one instance, the complaint states, Chait personally smuggled two endangered black rhino horns to China in his luggage.

Because of their high demand in Asia and increasing scarcity of supply, rhinoceros horns are worth more per pound than gold, prosecutors note.

Chait, the head of acquisitions and auctioneer of I.M. Chait Gallery in Beverley Hills, California, is charged with violating the Lacey Act. The count carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Prosecutors say Chait and his co-conspirators bought rhinoceros horns and taxidermy mounts in the United States from between 2009 and 2012, and sought to sell them to foreign buyers in private deals.

Having already appeared Tuesday in Manhattan federal court, Chait has another hearing before U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman on Feb. 27.

“Illegal trafficking like that allegedly conducted by these defendants is fueling the unprecedented slaughter of wild rhinos,” said Jim Kurth, acting director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a statement. “In Africa, a rhino is currently poached every eight hours – a rate that threatens to make the rhino extinct in the wild in less than 15 years.”

The defendant is the younger brother of Joey Chait, whom another federal judge in New York sentenced last year to a year and a day in prison for his smuggling endeavors.

Joey, the senior auction administrator at I.M. Chait Gallery, pleaded guilty to conspiring to smuggle about $1 million worth of wildlife products made from rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory and coral.

The Department of Justice leads such prosecutions as part of Operation Crash, a nationwide crackdown with the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service on illegal trafficking in rhinoceros horns and other wildlife crimes.

Jake Chait’s is the sixth Operation Crash case to be brought in the Southern District of New York. A “crash” is the term for a herd of rhinoceros, an herbivore species of prehistoric origin and one of the largest remaining mega-fauna on earth.

Humans are the only known predator of rhinoceros. Trade in rhino horn and elephant ivory has been restricted since 1976 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty to which more than 180 countries are signatories.