The ringleader of a wildlife smuggling conspiracy that trafficked in rhinoceros horns and elephant ivory was sentenced today by a federal judge in New Jersey to more than five years in U.S. prison.
Zhifei Li, the 30-year-old owner of an antique business in China, pleaded guilty last year in U.S. District Court in Newark, New Jersey, to 11 charges involving the illegal smuggling and trafficking of wildlife. He was the “boss” of several antique dealers in the U.S. whom he paid to obtain wildlife items and smuggle them to Hong Kong, according to papers filed with his plea agreement in December.
Li admitted selling 30 smuggled rhino horns worth about $3 million -- about $17,500 per pound -- to factories in China where they were carved into fake antiques. In all, Li admitted to trafficking in more than $4.5 million in rhino horns and elephant ivory between late 2010 and his arrest in January 2013.
In sentencing Li to 70 months in federal prison, U.S. District Judge Esther Salas said she hoped to send a message to other smugglers that trafficking in protected animals won’t be tolerated. She cited statistics provided by the U.S. government that showed rhinos were being “poached at an unprecedented level.” In South Africa, 1,004 rhinos were killed last year -- up from six in 2000, the judge said.
Speaking through an interpreter, Li pleaded for leniency, saying he had accepted responsibility for his crimes and wanted to spend more time with a sick daughter.
“I deeply regret and am ashamed of what I did,” Li said.
His lawyer, Gary Cutler, asked Salas to impose a sentence that was less than the guideline range of 70 to 87 months in prison, saying his client was needed at home and has suffered from illnesses in jail. He also argued that Li wasn’t poaching the animals himself and was trafficking in horns that had been in the U.S. for many years, not those taken from freshly killed animals.
Salas and U.S. Justice Department prosecutors said such a distinction was irrelevant because the illegal trafficking of such horns is a serious crime. They added that smuggling helped fuel demand for a product that required the killing of animals.
“Although Mr. Li didn’t shoot a rhino or an elephant, his finger might as well have been on the trigger,” said Richard Udell, a senior counsel in the Justice Department’s environmental crimes section.
All species of rhinoceros are protected under U.S. and international law. Li was arrested as part of “Operation Crash,” an effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to crack down on the trafficking in rhino horns. Demand for the horn has increased as China, Vietnam and other countries have grown more wealthy, and “libation cups,” crafted from rhino horn, have become increasingly popular, said Ed Grace, the service’s Deputy Assistant Director for Law Enforcement.
“The multibillion-dollar illegal wildlife market is supplied by animal poaching of unthinkable brutality and fed by those willing to profit from such cruelty,” said Paul Fishman, the top U.S. prosecutor in New Jersey.
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