Guilty plea in NJ to ivory, rhino horn smuggling

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - A Chinese national acknowledged Thursday that he was the mastermind of an international smuggling operation that illegally transported more than $4 million in rhinoceros horns and elephant ivory from the U.S. to China over the last several years.

Zhifei Li, 29, of Shandong, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Newark to 11 counts including conspiracy, smuggling, illegal wildlife trafficking and making fake documents. Each of seven smuggling counts carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence. Li's sentencing is scheduled for April.

"Rhino horn can sell for more than gold and is just as rare, but rhino horn and elephant ivory are more than mere commodities," Acting Assistant Attorney General Dreher said in a statement. "Each illegally traded horn or tusk represents a dead animal, poaching, bribery, smuggling and organized crime."

All species of the rhinoceros are protected under U.S. and international law, and international trade in rhino horns and elephant ivory has been regulated since the mid-1970s. Elephant herds in Africa have been critically depleted over the years by ivory hunters.

According to court documents, Li paid a Long Island City antiques dealer for horns that had been acquired by two other people based in northern New Jersey and Miami and Ormond Beach, Fla. One of the sources for the horns was a wildlife auction business in Missouri. The horns were allegedly shipped to Hong Kong and then mainland China wrapped in duct tape and hidden in porcelain vases.

Federal investigators began focusing on Li two years ago, after a confidential informant sold two raw rhino horns to a middleman at the Vince Lombardi rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. The horns, which had been supplied by the government, were then sold to the Long Island City antiques dealer.

The U.S. Attorney's Office estimated the total value of the horns, plus other smuggled objects made from the horns and from illegally obtained elephant ivory, was about $4.5 million.

The Long Island dealer, Qiang Wang, was sentenced to 37 months in prison two weeks ago in New York.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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