Seven people have been arrested on charges of trafficking in endangered rhinoceros horns in Los Angeles, Newark, N.J., and New York over the past week, federal officials said Thursday.
Four of the defendants were arrested in Los Angeles. The most recent arrest occurred Wednesday night at Los Angeles International Airport, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office.
Jin Zhao Feng, a Chinese national, was taken into custody at the airport. Authorities suspect him of overseeing the shipment of dozens of rhino horns from the U.S. to China.
Special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations made the arrests and served search warrants in as many as five states, according to a statement from the U.S. Justice and Interior departments.
The arrests were the result of an 18-month investigation that was called "Operation Crash" — the term for a herd of rhinoceroses — and scrutinized an international smuggling ring that trafficked in sawed-off rhinoceros horns. The horns are used by some cultures for ornamental carvings, good luck charms or believed medicinal purposes, including cancer.
Three of the alleged traffickers caught in Southern California were Jimmy Kha, 49, his girlfriend Mai Nguyen, 41, and Kha's 26-year-old son Felix. Each faces four counts of rhino horn trafficking in violation of federal laws protecting rare and endangered species.
One of the alleged suppliers, Wade Steffen, was arrested in Hico, Texas, and charged in Los Angeles, federal prosecutors said.
The Khas began receiving packages from Steffen and another alleged supplier in 2010. Seventeen packages were opened under federal search warrants and 37 rhinoceros horns were found, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.
A search of Steffen's luggage at the Long Beach Airport on Feb. 9 turned up $337,000 in cash. Additional searches by federal agents found rhinoceros horns, cash, bars of gold, diamonds and Rolex watches. Approximately $1 million in cash was seized and another $1 million seized in gold nuggets, federal officials said.
"The rhino is an animal of prehistoric origin that is facing possible extinction because of an illegal trade for its horns on the black market that is driven by greed," said Ignacia S. Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Justice Depatment's Environment and Natural Resources Division.
The arrests were initially reported by the Los Angeles Times.
In New Jersey, Amir Even-Ezra was arrested Feb. 18 on a felony trafficking charge after purchasing rhino horns from a New York resident in New Jersey. He allegedly met a confidential informant on the New Jersey Turnpike to purchase two rhinoceros horns for $35,000 in cash.
Antiques expert David Hausman was charged in U.S. District Court in Manhattan with illegally trafficking rhinoceros horns and with creating false documents to conceal the illegal nature of the transaction, prosecutors said. He allegedly bought a black rhinoceros mount -- a taxidermied head of a rhino -- from an undercover officer in Illinois and was later observed sawing off the horns in a motel parking lot.
All species of rhinoceros are protected under U.S. and international law and all black rhinoceros species are endangered, federal officials said.
Rhino horns are composed of keratin, the same type of protein that makes up hair and fingernails. Rhinoceros horn is a highly valued and sought-after commodity despite the fact that international trade has been largely banned since 1976.