U.S. Operation Crash: Zhifei Li Pleads Guilty to Rhino Horn, Ivory Trafficking

Zhifei Li pleaded guilty to operating a smuggling ring which shipped rhino horns and ivory from the United States to China.
Zhifei Li pleaded guilty to operating a smuggling ring which shipped rhino horns and ivory from the United States to China. Photo: justice.gov/usao

Chinese national Zhifei Li has pleaded guilty to orchestrating an illegal operation which smuggled 30 rhinoceros horns and numerous objects made from rhino horn and elephant ivory worth more than $4.5 million from the United States to China.

Li, who owns an antiques business called “Overseas Treasure Finding” in Shandong, China, was arrested in January 2013. He pleaded guilty to:

  • One count of conspiracy to smuggle and violate the Lacey Act;
  • Seven counts of smuggling;
  • One count of illegal wildlife trafficking in violation of the Lacey Act;
  • Two counts of making false wildlife documents.

“Li sold whole rhino horns to factories where they would be carved into fake antiques. The leftover pieces from the carving process were sold for alleged ‘medicinal’ purposes even though rhino horn is made of compressed keratin, the same material in human hair and nails and has no proven medical efficacy.”

Li purchased rhino horns in Florida, where he was attending the Original Miami Beach Antique Show. Not only did Li purchase two black rhino horns from an undercover USFWS agent, he asked the officer to procure additional rhino horns and mail them to Hong Kong. In 2011 and 2012, Li arranged the shipment of rhino horns to addresses in Hong Kong in order to facilitate the smuggling of horns to mainland China. The rhino horns were concealed with duct tape and hidden inside porcelain vases. Li also arranged the smuggling of ivory carvings to China, falsely labeled as “wood carvings” as well as two elephant tusks weighing more than 100 pounds, which were labeled as “automobile parts”.

Li facilitated the smuggling of elephant tusks to China, falsely labeled as "automobile parts". Photo: justice.gov/usao
Li facilitated the smuggling of elephant tusks to China, falsely labeled as “automobile parts”. Photo: justice.gov/usao

According to court documents, Li worked with at least three co-conspirators. He wired hundreds of thousands of dollars to one of them, while the other two co-conspirators purchased rhino horns from various sources, including an auction house in Missouri.

“Li admitted that he was the ‘boss’ of three antique dealers in the United States whom he paid to help obtain wildlife items and smuggle them to him via Hong Kong.”

In December 2010, Li advised a co-conspirator to respond to an internet advertisement offering rhino horn for sale. The co-conspirator was subsequently provided with photos of rhino horns, as well as the rhino from which the horns were procured, from an individual in Cameroon.

A rhino horn seller in Cameroon provided Li's co-conspirator with a photo of the downed rhino. Photo: justice.gov/usao
A rhino horn seller in Cameroon provided Li’s co-conspirator with a photo of the downed rhino. Photo: justice.gov/usao

Then in March 2011, Li’s co-conspirator wired approximately $16,000 to Cameroon for the purpose of obtaining two rhino horns. The seller “promised” to bring additional horns into the United States.

Between February 2011 and February 2012, Li and his co-conspirators conducted various rhino horn transactions in Miami and Ormond Beach, Florida, and Wanaque, Ridgefield, and Little Ferry, New Jersey. From April 2012 through January 2013, Li facilitated illegal rhino horn deals in Texas.

"Li admitted that he was the 'boss' of three antique dealers in the United States whom he paid to help obtain wildlife items and smuggle them to him via Hong Kong." Photo: justice.gov/usao
“Li admitted that he was the ‘boss’ of three antique dealers in the United States whom he paid to help obtain wildlife items and smuggle them to him via Hong Kong.” Photo: justice.gov/usao

Zhifei Li faces a maximum potential penalty of ten years in prison for each of the smuggling counts and five years for each of the other offenses, as well as a $250,000 fine per count, or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense. Sentencing has been scheduled for April 1, 2014.


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Rhishja Cota-Larson

I am the founder of Annamiticus, and I work as an independent Wildlife Trade and Communication Design Consultant. I have journeyed to the streets of Hanoi to research the illegal wildlife trade, and to the rainforests of Sumatra and Java to document the world’s rarest rhinos. I am a Co-Chair of the SSN Pangolin Working Group. At CITES meetings, I collaborate with colleagues from around the world to lobby in favor of protecting endangered species. I am a Wildlife Trade and Trafficking Consultant for the upcoming documentary The Price, the host of Behind the Schemes and author of the book Murder, Myths & Medicine. I enjoy desert gardening, herping, reading, designing, and walking with my dogs.