Victor Gordon’s cramped antiques shop was called “the most unusual store in Philadelphia,” and it more than lived up to its billing.
It was a tomb for African elephants, with about 425 pieces of tusks carved to resemble tribesmen and totems, “one of the largest known caches of illegal elephant ivory in the United States,” court records said, worth about $1 million.
Gordon was a middleman in the grisly supply chain of African elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn who took advantage of a poorly guarded U.S. port. He was by no means a rarity.
For nearly a decade, Gordon orchestrated what prosecutors called one of the “most significant and egregious” violations of U.S. laws against trafficking elephant ivory. He paid smugglers to buy ivory from stockpiles in West Africa and sneak it through New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in shipping crates weighing as much as a ton.
It was a low-risk operation for the smugglers. With only six U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspectors and four police agents to search millions of shipments that arrive at JFK’s massive cargo facility each year, there was little chance of being caught.
While the international response to poaching is focused on Africa and the demand for contraband in China and Vietnam, middlemen such as Gordon have been running extremely lucrative operations within U.S. borders. They bring cargo in through poorly policed ports and take advantage of legal loopholes that exempt antiques and some hunting trophies from the ban on trading elephant ivory and rhino horn. When agents do manage to snare a wildlife smuggler, the courts are often lenient.
“Our nation hasn’t prioritized wildlife trafficking,” said David Hayes, a former Interior Department deputy secretary who serves as vice chair of an advisory panel for wildlife trafficking formed by President Obama. A major part of the problem, Hayes said, “is the lack of inspections at our ports.”
Fewer than 330 Fish and Wildlife inspectors and agents patrol the largest U.S. ports, about the same number as 30 years ago, when the agency’s law enforcement branch was formed. Since that time, international wildlife trafficking has grown from a small concern into a criminal colossus worth an estimated $20 billion per year, police and economists say — the fourth-largest global black market behind the trades for drugs, guns and humans for sex. The growing revenue has attracted crime syndicates, leaders of rogue armies, and terrorist groups, according to U.S. intelligence reports.
African elephant populations have been reduced by more than half in the past 30 years; nearly the entire black rhino population has disappeared since the middle of the 20th century.
The White House in February unveiled a national strategy to attack wildlife trafficking by increasing cooperation among a half-dozen or so federal agencies, toughening laws and enhancing enforcement. But nowhere does it specifically commit to increasing the thin ranks of inspectors and agents at the ports.
For every crate with illegal ivory, rhinoceros horn or some other banned product crafted from a threatened or endangered animal that is discovered, about 10 get by, police said.
“We don’t have enough people to do what we have to do,” said Paul Chapelle, the special agent in charge of the Fish and Wildlife law enforcement office near JFK Airport. And when they do arrest someone, he said, “you go back and look at the [shipping] manifests, and you see the same people had been doing the same thing for five or 10 years. . . . It happens all the time.”
The detection of the shipping crate that led federal agents to the immigrant smugglers, who led them to Gordon in 2011, was a stroke of luck, essentially the discovery of a needle in a haystack made up of hundreds of thousands of crates.
With a long prison sentence hanging over his head, Gordon admitted to his crime and begged for mercy at a federal court in Brooklyn. “I know I was wrong,” he wrote to a judge.
In a rare victory for wildlife law enforcement, Gordon was sentenced in June to 2½ years behind bars.
As a soft rain fell on a dreary weekday in February, Naimah Aziz watched two other Fish and Wildlife inspectors crack open a shipping crate with a crowbar.
It was more than just another wood box stacked in a dank warehouse at JFK. It was also a coffin. Aziz ran her fingers across four milky white tusks of elephants shot dead in Zimbabwe. “It’s a hunting shipment,” she said, legal at the time under federal law, a loophole that allowed hunters to import the remains of non-endangered animals for trophies.
A second crate was opened, bigger and deeper. The skull of a crocodile sat atop the generous hide of a hippopotamus, folded as neatly as a bed comforter and sprinkled with lime to suppress the odor. “We see these all the time,” Aziz said.
Aziz is a member of one of the smallest federal enforcement units in the United States — Fish and Wildlife inspectors and police.
The United States ranks as the world’s second-largest retail market behind China for legal artifacts crafted from the remains of wild animals, with some studies estimating that as much as 30 percent of imported shipments are illegal, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.
And JFK, with its 4-million-square-foot cargo facility, is the nation’s largest port for legitimately traded wildlife — including pricey T-shirts finely embroidered with crocodile skin, coats with buttons made from shells, and stuffed museum exhibits featuring authentic animal horns and hides.
Inspectors spend most of their time spot-checking some of the 140,000 declared shipments — merchandise with a federal permit allowing its entry — that come and go each year. Crates’ contents are electronically scanned by U.S. customs officials seeking contraband such as weapons and narcotics, not wildlife.
A spot-check put law enforcement on the trail of the smuggling ring in 2007. That year, a crate that arrived at JFK from Cameroon with documents saying it contained low-value wood trinkets aroused suspicion. A search revealed that much of the cargo was illegal ivory.
Police traced the crate to a smuggler, who after his arrest divulged the names, telephone numbers and bank account numbers of the men who paid him, said Philip Alegranti, a Fish and Wildlife investigator.
The informant, whom the government has declined to identify because of an ongoing investigation, said he smuggled raw ivory and “worked” ivory, meaning it had been carved into statues and masks. He had the ivory boiled and soaked in resin by artisans in West Africa to make it look like a 100-year-old antique that’s more expensive and legal to sell, another loophole the federal government only recently sought to close.
On at least three occasions between August 2006 and January 2009, Gordon paid the informant a total of at least $24,000 to deliver ivory to his store.
With the informant’s information, a federal agent posing as a buyer arranged to meet Bandjan Sidime, a member of the smuggling ring, at a cheap Richmond hotel in August 2008.
Sidime, a native of Guinea, assured the buyer that he was offering one of the hottest products on the black market. “It’s real,” he said about four carved elephant tusks offered for a bargain of $1,200. “It’s real ivory.”
The buyer was a federal agent who recorded the conversation. Sidime said smuggling ivory was expensive: “You have to give people something, a bribe,” he said, but worth the price. “Always the price of ivory go up like a diamond, like gold, all the time.”
Sidime pleaded guilty to violating a federal wildlife laws in 2010 and was sentenced to 30 days in prison, five months of home confinement with a digital monitor and two years of supervised release.
Some of the ivory he tried to sell in Richmond belonged to Gordon. When police raided Gordon’s shop in July 2011, they traced ivory through receipts to buyers in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Texas, Illinois, Kansas and California, where they were mostly used as carvings and other decorative art.
Fish and Wildlife put Gordon and his helpers out of business, but police were starting to see bigger, richer, better organized illegal operations that aggressively pursued the animal piece that commanded the highest prices in the illegal wildlife trade: rhino horn.
A rhino’s horn is an icon that any grade school student can point out, perched on the long snout of a beast that looks prehistoric.
Aside from that, the horn is nothing special. Made of keratin, the same structural material that makes up bird feathers and donkey hooves, it has the same healing power as clippings from human fingernails or a clump of hair, which keratin also forms.
There is little explanation for why so many Chinese and Vietnamese have held firm to a centuries-old belief that rhino horns have the power to heal maladies from cancer to a post-drunken stupor.
On China’s black market, a single pound can command up to $45,000, said Edward Grace, the deputy assistant director of Fish and Wildlife law enforcement. The horns of an adult rhinoceros typically weigh between 10 and 20 pounds. They are also valued as ornate carvings.
Buying and selling rhinoceros horn is banned throughout the world, but it is possible to purchase horns online and at auction in the United States, and criminals have smuggled them to Asia in airplanes, ships and even the U.S. mail.
During a sting operation in 2011, Fish and Wildlife police found that domestic and foreign crime syndicates were pursuing rhinoceros horn deep inside the United States.
That year, an undercover federal agent lured Richard O’Brien and Michael Hegarty into buying a pair of horns in Commerce City, Colo. The agent had no idea how big a find the two men would turn out to be.
Buyers are usually jittery, but O’Brien and Hegarty were bold and confident. When the agent asked if they were afraid of being caught, they said it could never happen. Their organization made similar transactions all over the world, they said, and their modus operandi was foolproof.
The men were arrested as soon as they tossed the contraband into a rental car and prepared to drive off. They were eventually sentenced to six months in prison and two years of supervised release.
Inside their car were items that police had not seen in other arrests: passports, large packing boxes and shrink-wrap to bind the horns. A search of the men’s criminal histories exposed them as members of a syndicate known as the Rathkeale Rovers, based in Rathkeale, Ireland.
Under the same international treaty that protects elephants, rhino horn cannot be imported or exported without a federal permit, and the sale of anything other than an antique is generally prohibited.
But there was a loophole — rhinoceros hunting trophies. The United States has banned the import of hunting trophies with elephant ivory and rhino horn from some countries but still allows it from others where hunters are needed as both a form of eco-tourism and to carefully manage herds.
Trophies are supposed to be imported strictly for personal use, with the stipulation that they not be sold for profit. But owners who tire of the trophies can put them up for sale to American collectors at auction.
But that is where criminals show up with forged documents claiming residency and false permits that allow them to purchase items. In 2012, members of the Rovers showed up with fake documents and purchased a trophy at an auction outside Dallas. They hacked off the horns and tried to sell them in New York.
The Rovers first made money by selling antique furnishings to buyers in Asia, but their criminal enterprise quickly diversified to trading rhino horn, police said.
“The Chinese and Vietnamese led them into the rhino trade,” Grace said. “They told them, while you’re out buying these . . . antiques, keep an eye out for rhino horn, for which we will pay more than the price of gold.”
Unknown in the United States, the Rovers were infamous in Europe for their snatch-and-grab thefts at museums in Britain and other nations, yanking rhinoceros horn from exhibits, police said. Thanks to gangs such as the Rovers, replicas are used in place of real rhino horns in museums throughout Europe.
“It had ballooned into something bigger than even we expected,” Grace said.
A spike in rhinoceros horn theft in the United States pushed Fish and Wildlife to step up its lagging police effort.
The United States was “being used as a base and a transshipment point by criminals seeking to profit on the deaths of hundreds of rhinos,” Fish and Wildlife Director Daniel M. Ashe said. It was “imperative that we act here and now to shut them down.”
Months after the Rovers’ arrests, Grace and others met to discuss the growing influence of organized crime over the wildlife trade. Within a year, Fish and Wildlife partnered with the Justice Department and other police agencies nationwide to launch a hunt for rhino horn traffickers in the United States.
They called it Operation Crash. Crash is slang for a stampeding herd of rhinos.
In nearly three years, Operation Crash has logged 21 arrests and 12 convictions, with at least two suspects awaiting trial.
The biggest bust by far involved Vinh Chung “Jimmy” Kha, 49, and his son, Felix, 26, masters of rhinoceros horn smuggling.
Their supply chain included a Texas cowboy, and their smuggling operation included the elder Kha’s girlfriend, the owner of a nail salon, who police say mailed horns to Hong Kong.
Police burst into Kha’s store outside Los Angeles in 2012 and found dozens of horns, shavings from horns, cash and diamonds. The father and son pleaded guilty and were each sentenced to more than three years in prison.
In another case, the promise of acquiring rhinoceros horn in the United States drew Zhifei Li 8,000 miles from his shop in China’s Shandong province to Miami Beach. He set aside half a million dollars for his shopping trip last year, U.S. prosecutors said.
After an undercover police officer sold him two horns, the biggest weighing five pounds, he was arrested. Li, 29, was sentenced in May to more than five years in prison for operating a rhino horn smuggling and trafficking network in the United States from his home in China.
The most widely publicized Operation Crash arrest is also one of the most recent. Michael Slattery, 25, another member of the Rathkeale Rovers, traveled from Ireland to Houston and tried to buy a rhinoceros head on a hunting trophy at a Dallas-area auction.
He was arrested and given a one-year prison sentence early this year.
At wildlife conservation meetings held yearly by governments around the globe, U.S. officials say they are the toughest enforcers of crimes against wildlife while encouraging other countries to strengthen their laws. But some U.S. officials and conservationists question that boast.
“We have a better job to do” in order to be a role model “and practice what we preach to other governments,” Brooke Darby, a deputy assistant secretary for narcotics and law enforcement issues at the State Department, said during a recent panel on Capitol Hill.
As illegal wildlife trafficking thrived with the growing participation of crime syndicates, army renegades and terrorist groups, Obama issued an executive order in July 2013 “to address the significant effects of wildlife trafficking on the national interests of the United States.”
Four months later, seeking to lead by example, the federal government crushed six tons of ivory that U.S. agents had seized over 25 years and kept in a repository in Commerce City. It set off a chain reaction of crushes from Belgium to Hong Kong.
The White House appointed an advisory panel and a task force of federal agencies to address ivory trading. Their recommendations led to the government’s toughest stance yet on trading ivory: A Fish and Wildlife Service rule enacted in February made selling ivory across state lines and international borders illegal.
There were a few exemptions: if the ivory is more than a century old, if a family moves with ivory art or furniture not intended for sale or if a legitimate institution such as a museum is planning an exhibit.
Until recently, ivory imported as hunting trophies from a handful of African nations was exempt. But Fish and Wildlife, saying elephant populations in countries such as Tanzania were threatened and falling, issued a temporary ban effective in June.
As the federal government grappled with loopholes in its laws, states continued to cling to laws that failed to discourage wildlife crimes, prosecutors said. A case in New York was held up as a perfect example of how criminals are largely unpunished.
Mukesh Gupta, 67, and Jung-Chien Lu, 56, who were caught in 2012 with enough ivory to equal 100 dead elephants, a haul worth at least $2 million.
They both pleaded guilty to a single count of illegal commercialization of wildlife. And they both walked away with a fine, forfeiture of the illegally obtained ivory and probation.
Gupta is tending shop at his company, Raja Jewels, and Lu returned to his business, New York Jewelry Mart, and both continue to live well in upscale Westchester County.
Cyrus R. Vance, the Manhattan district attorney who prosecuted the case, walked away thinking that the law “doesn’t give a court or prosecutor much power to alter behavior,” he said in a telephone interview.
But outrage over the case pushed the state General Assembly into action. In June, the assembly passed a law that punished wildlife trafficking with significant fines for first offenses and prison time for repeat offenders. The law also banned the sale of ivory in the state with few exceptions.
Elly Pepper, a legislative advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that pushed for new laws, called it a precedent for states that have expressed interest in strengthening their ivory laws.
“The largest U.S. ivory markets following New York are California and Hawaii, and we will be pursuing efforts in both states next session to ensure they follow New York’s lead,” Pepper said.
Not everyone supports the tougher law. It could devastate individuals and families who legally own ivory that they have held for decades and hoped to sell. Antiques dealers said the federal law and the New York state law will cost them millions of dollars, without giving them a chance to sell artifacts that had been treasures.
Police and prosecutors argue that extraordinary measures had to be taken because the legal ivory trade masked the illegal one, fueling the slaughter of elephants.
“We’re all confident that we could go out today and send investigators into antique shops and trinket shops and find ivory for sale,” said Julieta V. Lozano, the lead prosecutor on the case involving Gupta and Lu.
That case “made us realize there’s a brisk trade,” she said. It also “confirmed for us what we knew: If we had all the resources we needed to make these cases, we could find dozens of shops every month.”
“From at least my perspective, this is a business, just like sex trafficking is a business,” Vance said. “I don’t think it’s unusual that people will go in illegal business to make money, and if you don’t enforce it, they will continue to do it.”
The importance of tougher sentences is obvious, Vance said. “We are talking about something of global significance, the extermination of species.”