RHINO HORN GANGS TARGET MUSEUMS AND ART AUCTIONS
The desire for rhino horns has become so great, thieves have broken into European museums and taxidermy shops, sometimes smashing them off with sledgehammers before fleeing. According to Europol, the European law enforcement agency, 72 rhino horns were stolen from 15 European countries in 2011, the first year such data was recorded. In addition, criminal gangs are buying up rhino horns sold at art, antique and hunting trophy auctions. Horns on mounted heads qualify count as antiques. In the autumn of 2010 at Tennant auction house in Yorkshire offered 16 lots of rhino horn. The biggest lot was valued at around $140,000. The total of all the lots was valued at around $700,000.
The Times of London reported: “Police are targeting the gangs behind a multimillion-pound global operation smuggling rhino horns stolen from European museums and private collections then sent to Asia to be ground down to powder and sold as medicine. The theft of rhino horn and oriental artefacts to be sold on the black market is increasing and amounts to between £300 million and £500 million a year. [Source: Danielle Sheridan, The Times, November 19 2013]
Trade in rhino horn is prohibited by the international Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)” However in many places “trade in antique rhino horn, items dating from before 1947, is still legal, albeit with significant restrictions and they occasionally turn up at auction. Adam Higginbotham wrote in Businessweek, “Word of the fortune hidden in rhino horns spread quietly at first. For years, horns mounted before 1947 were exempt from the export regulations of CITES and could be legally exported from Europe. But in 2006 antique horns began achieving unprecedented prices at auction; over three years their cost rose tenfold. In 2010, after a single horn sold at British auction for a world record £99,300 ($164,000), European authorities announced an export ban on antique rhino trophies. [Source: Adam Higginbotham, Businessweek, January 2, 2014]
Michael Parsons wrote in the Irish Times, “During the colonial era, big-game hunting was popular and rhino horns were regarded as sporting trophies. Rhino heads, with the horns intact, were shipped back to Europe where they were stuffed and mounted by taxidermists to adorn the walls of grand country houses in Ireland and Britain. In a separate tradition, craftsmen in Asia, and particularly China, carved rhino horn to create highly-prized ornaments including elaborate drinking vessels known as libation cups. These can fetch very high prices. At a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong in 2010, a rare 17th-century libation cup sold for €2.5 million. Here, at a Mealy’s auction in 2011, a 19th-century Chinese carved, full-tip rhinoceros horn lotus libation cup sold for €75,000. Yet a third and rather obscure use for rhino horn is found in the Middle East, and Yemen especially, where it is use to create elaborate handles for ceremonial daggers and canes. [Source: Michael Parsons, Irish Times, February 15, 2014 >>>]
"In recent years, the trade in antique rhino horn has been undermined by demand, not from collectors, but from criminal gangs supplying a medicinal black market in Asia. It is likely that some antique rhino horns, sold legally at auction, also end up– to the dismay of genuine collectors of both taxidermy and Chinese art – being ground to make the medicinal powder. The high price of illegal rhino horn powder, which can fetch up to €48,000 per kilogram on the black market, has also led to a spate of thefts of antique rhino horn from museums, country houses and auction houses in Ireland, Britain, continental Europe and the United States during the past few years. >>>
In 2013, "rhino heads and horns, valued at €500,000, were stolen from a warehouse leased by the National Museum of Ireland in north Co Dublin. Ironically, the items had been removed from public display at the museum’s natural history wing in Merrion Street because it was feared they would be stolen. And in January Gardaí were called to the Co Cork home of the dancer Michael Flatley after antique rhino horn was stolen from his Castlehyde mansion. It is believed that, as nothing else was taken in the break-in, it was a targeted raid for just the rhino horn."
Rhino Horn Thefts at European Museums
Kate Katharina Ferguson wrote in Der Spiegel, “Thefts of rhinoceros horns from museums around Europe have increased sharply. A single horn can fetch 200,000 euros on the black market because it is wrongly seen as a powerful remedy in East Asian traditional medicine, officials in Germany say. Exhibitions are tightening security. [Source: Kate Katharina Ferguson, Der Spiegel, March 13, 2012]
The large collection of African hunting trophies at the Offenburg Museum in the southwestern German city of the same name has long been a source of great pride at the cultural institution. It is based on around 80 stuffed animals donated to the museum in 1950 by Gretchen Cron, a wealthy woman who, together with her husband, spent much of her life hunting in exotic places until the outbreak of World War II. Cron felt so guilty about killing so many animals in danger of extinction that she donated her collection to the museum. Among the trophies displayed was the head of a black rhinoceros, a species native to South Africa. In February 2012, four thieves entered the museum during broad daylight. Two of them distracted the museum staff and the two others rushed over to the rhino head. They removed the trophy from its display, mounted at a lofty 4 meters (13 feet), and broke off its horn with a sledgehammer. Museum officials described the act as "brazen and brutal." Three weeks later, police in Munich arrested two men and a woman in connection with the attack, which is part of a growing and disturbing trend in thefts of rhinoceros horns in Europe. Officials believe the thefts may be related to the popularity of rhino horns in East Asian traditional medicine.
Officials at Europol, the European Union's criminal intelligence agency, claim the number of thefts of rhinoceros horns has increased sharply in Europe during the past year. Since 2011, the agency has recorded 56 successful and 10 attempted thefts. Criminals purloined horns from museums and private collections in 15 countries, with many of the thefts believed to be linked to "an Irish and ethnically Irish organized criminal group, who are known to use intimidation and violence to achieve their ends." The group is believed to be active in Asia, North and South America and Europe.
Depending on the size and quality, Europol estimates that a single rhino horn can be worth between €25,000 and €200,000. In addition to traditional medicines, they are also used as decoration or to produce luxury goods. In some cases, auction houses in Britain, France, the United States and China have been used to sell the stolen horns. Wildlife experts believe that a large number of the horns are sold to Vietnam and China.
Given the possible connection between an Irish criminal group and the crimes, Monaghan and officials at the National Museum of Ireland have implemented preventative security measures by removing rhino horns from display and replacing them with replicas. "These crimes have really taken off in the last two years," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "In the wild, poaching has been going on for decades, but these 'smash and grab' style cases are new."
Norbert Niedernostheide of the German Museums Association told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that, over the past year, there have been more than 10 cases in which thieves entered museums, auction houses or zoos to steal rhino horns. Exhibits have disappeared in Hamburg, Münster, Bamberg and the town of Sebnitz in the eastern state of Saxony. But thieves have also struck elsewhere in Europe, including France, Britain, Sweden and the Czech Republic.
Actions Taken by Museums to Prevent Rhino Horn Theft
Kate Katharina Ferguson wrote in Der Spiegel, “Preventative measures are being undertaken at a number of museums around Europe. In Germany, Bamberg's Museum of Natural History installed extra security after a thief broke into the facility last summer and used a screwdriver to prize open the display case containing the museum's only wide-mouthed rhinoceros horn. One museum worker said the theft "was a big loss for the museum." [Source: Kate Katharina Ferguson, Der Spiegel, March 13, 2012]
In Offenburg, Germany, officials view February's burglary as an attack on the museum's openness. More than one-third of the museum's visitors are children and youths and Offenburg has used the concept of an "open museum" for the past 20 years as the inspiration for all of its exhibitions. "It's part of the charm and success of the museum," a statement read. In light of the theft, the museum plans to tighten its security with the help of the police to thwart the increasingly "brazen and brutal methods" used by criminals. They also plan to rehang the hornless Rhino trophy in order to "spur new discussions."
Rhino Horn Theft from Museum Warehouse in Ireland
Adam Higginbotham wrote in Businessweek, “When the phone rang at about 3 a.m. on April 18, Nigel Monaghan was asleep on the floor in his office in Dublin, tangled in a sleeping bag. In his job as Keeper of the National Museum of Ireland’s natural history section, he was overseeing filming of the latest episode of a children’s TV special, Sleepover Safari. Ten children, their parents, and a film crew were spending the night in the museum, known locally as the Dead Zoo, surrounded by Ireland’s foremost collection of taxidermy. [Source: Adam Higginbotham, Businessweek, January 2, 2014 ||||]
The call was from the museum’s central security office. Four stuffed rhino heads—ones Monaghan had sent away for safekeeping a year earlier—had been stolen from the museum’s storage facility near the airport. At 10:40 p.m., three masked men forced their way in, tied up the single guard on duty, and found the shelves where the heads were kept. The trophies were heavy and awkward. Expertly stuffed and mounted by big game taxidermists at the turn of the 20th century, they were monstrous confections of skin and bone, plaster and timber, horsehair and straw. When Monaghan and his team had come to move the largest—that of a white rhino shot in Sudan in 1914, with a horn more than three feet long—it had taken four men just to lift it down from the museum wall. But the burglars were undeterred, and soon they had every head in the back of their white van. They took nothing else, and within an hour they were gone. ||||
On New Year’s Eve 2010, a single horn was stolen from the All Weather Zoo in Münster; in February a complete rhino head was torn from the wall during a break-in at an auctioneer in Britain. By the end of summer 2011, there had been 19 more thefts or attempted robberies from museums and collections in France, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and the U.K. An increasing number of robberies were daylight smash-and-grabs: In Paris, thieves attacked guards at the Museum of Hunting and Nature in the Marais with tear gas before making off with a horn.
Irish Connection to Rhino Horn Theft in Europe and Aquisitions in
Adam Higginbotham wrote in Businessweek, “The first signs of an Irish connection in the world of rhino horn trafficking went almost unnoticed. In January 2010 customs officers at Ireland’s Shannon Airport confiscated eight horns from the baggage of two passengers on a flight from Faro, Portugal. Officials weren’t even certain a crime had been committed; they had never seized a rhino horn before. No arrests were immediately made, and the evidence was sent to Dublin Zoo for analysis. The passengers were Jeremiah and Michael O’Brien, Irish brothers who said they were traveling antique dealers who spent most of their time living in French and German RV parks. If any international alert was transmitted about the O’Briens, John Reid, then the Irish police force’s liaison to Europol, never received it. [Source: Adam Higginbotham, Businessweek, January 2, 2014 ||||]
“In 2012 thieves broke into the Museum im Ritterhaus in Offenburg, Germany, and stole a horn, part of an epidemic of taxidermy larceny During the summer of 2010, however, Reid noticed something unusual in the intelligence traffic reaching him from other countries. Identification requests containing the same names and vehicles were coming in from Scandinavia, France, and Belgium, and sometimes from different agencies in the same country, just weeks apart. ||||
“The queries shared many common elements, including a British-registered vehicle driven by a man who said he was Irish, or vice versa, who was involved in a petty scam—fraudulent contracting or selling counterfeit electrical generators or power tools. Often the individual had presented a U.K. driver’s license and given a vague or transient address in England; sometimes a German or French policeman had written down a phonetic version of the suspect’s place of origin as “Raheele” or “Rackeel.” When questioned, the men were aggressive; their names were infuriatingly similar; they sometimes had multiple identities; frequently every word they said was a lie. They proved impossible to track in police databases. “Shadows, floating in and out,” Reid says. At the end of a crime report detailing the activities of one Irish suspect, the Scandinavian author broke out of formal bureaucratic language to add a plaintive postscript: “Is there anybody that knows how to deal with these people?” Reid decided to look into it. ||||
“Across the Atlantic, Grace at the USFWS also began hearing strange complaints about Irishmen attempting to purchase rhino horns illegally. In July 2010 a man calling himself John Sullivan sent a message to a taxidermist in Commerce City, Colo., claiming he was decorating a castle in Ireland with an African theme; he needed rhino trophies. The taxidermist, knowing that transporting rhino products from the U.S. to Ireland without a valid certificate from the USFWS was a felony, reported the solicitation to federal authorities. He continued the correspondence as an informant. ||||
Over the next two months, Sullivan arranged for his “brother” to fly to Colorado to finalize the purchase of four horns from the informant. “Only interested in rhino,” Sullivan wrote. “The more rhino u get us, the more money u get ur self.” On Sept. 9, 2010, accompanied by undercover Special Agent Curtis Graves of the USFWS, the informant met two men with thick Irish brogues, Richard O’Brien and Michael Hegarty. O’Brien said he knew rhino horn couldn’t legally leave the U.S., but they were in the antiques business and getting the horn out of the country wouldn’t be difficult: They had sea containers filled with furniture going to Britain every few weeks. Graves told the Irishmen that his cousin had four horns he could sell them for $8,500. On Nov. 13, Hegarty and O’Brien returned from Ireland to make the purchase, handing over €12,850 in cash, and were promptly arrested. They admitted to investigators that they were buying on behalf of Sullivan but otherwise stuck to their story: The horns were to be decoration in an Irish castle. ||||
“Even as the federal trap was closing in Colorado, another Irishman was quietly shopping for rhinos in Texas: In late September, Michael Slattery Jr. attempted to buy a stuffed rhino head from a taxidermist in Austin. When told that the sale would be legal only to a Texas resident, Slattery and his accomplices recruited a homeless man to make the $18,000 purchase for them. Three days after O’Brien and Hegarty were arrested in Colorado, Slattery arrived in New York, where he and his accomplices sold four horns, accompanied by falsified Endangered Species bills of sale, to a Chinese buyer in Queens for a total of $50,000. Later that day, Slattery took a plane out of the country. The rhino horns were sold twice more in New York before they, too, left the U.S.—this time for China. few days later in Washington, Grace of the USFWS was introduced to a colleague from Europol. When Grace mentioned the peculiar case he’d been dealing with in Colorado, the colleague told him it sounded familiar. ||||
“By the beginning of November 2010, working at Europol headquarters in the Hague, Reid, the Irish police force’s liaison for Interpol, had spent several months collecting and analyzing intelligence from across Europe. With help from detectives of Dublin’s Criminal Assets Bureau, or the CAB, a multi-agency investigative unit established in part to combat organized crime in Ireland, he assembled a detailed briefing on a criminal group that had come to be known as the Rathkeale Rovers. They are part of a network of clans called the Irish Travellers, a nomadic and often secretive ethnic group that maintains its own distinct customs and language. ||||
Irish Gang Behind Europe's Rhino-Horn Theft Epidemic
Adam Higginbotham wrote in Businessweek, “The Rovers have been of interest to the CAB for much of the last decade but have proved hard to prosecute—not least because they rarely seem to commit any crimes in Ireland. Unlike a conventional criminal gang, set up and directed to accomplish a single illegal enterprise, the Rathkeale Rovers operate within the extended families of the Irish Traveller network, a tangle of relatives who work together in all enterprises, both legal and illegal. [Source: Adam Higginbotham, Businessweek, January 2, 2014 ||||]
“They spend most of every year on the road, living in trailers—known as caravans in Britain and Ireland—at campsites and trailer parks for months at a time. According to Eugene Corcoran, head of the CAB, they originally earned their name traveling in Britain and Europe doing road-paving work, which may sometimes be legitimate but is more often part of a long-running scheme to defraud vulnerable people, taking cash for substandard asphalting of driveways. Other favored scams include burglary and fraudulent white-line-painting operations, often using water-soluble paint. (“There’s a regional airport in France, as soon as it rains, the runway will disappear,” says CAB detective Paul Fleming.) Recently the Rovers have expanded their range to include Canada, Hong Kong, Russia, and the Dominican Republic. In addition to paving, they trade in furniture, carpets, cars, and especially antiques. Renowned for their sharp entrepreneurial instincts, they prefer cash transactions and often drive thousands of miles on short notice to do a deal. ||||
“At the end of each year, the Rovers return to a small rural town two hours’ drive from Dublin—Rathkeale, in County Limerick. As they gather there in November and December, the narrow streets clog with BMW and Mercedes SUVs, and the clans compete to stage the most ostentatious wedding of the season. Those who have made the most money stand to rise in the clan hierarchy and like to flaunt their wealth with shows of extravagance. “Gucci Travellers,” Fleming says. “That’s how they’re known amongst their own.” ||||
“Richard “Kerry” O’Brien is known as the King of the Travellers in Rathkeale. He’s one of the wealthiest Travellers in Ireland. According to the CAB detectives and Eamon Dillon, the crime correspondent for Dublin’s Sunday World newspaper and author of two books about the Travellers, O’Brien has made money by importing furniture from China, where he travels several times a year, and for a while owned a factory manufacturing aluminum gutters which other Travellers sold door to door. O’Brien, like his fellow Rathkeale clan leader Michael “Levan” Slattery, is renowned as a world-class expert in antiques. Over the past 20 years, the Rathkeale Rovers have become regulars on the international auction circuit, bidding on furniture, paintings, and other rare artifacts. Many are said to be millionaires. ||||
“The Kerry O’Briens and Levan Slatterys are just two of the dozens of Rathkeale clans, many of whom share the same family name and go by nicknames so they can tell one another apart: The Kerry O’Briens, for example, differ from the “Turkey” O’Briens, the “Bishop” O’Briens, and the “Pa Turkey” O’Briens. The families are large and complicated further by a tradition of giving fathers, sons, and cousins the same first names. It was Richard Kerry O’Brien’s son, also named Richard, who was arrested by the USFWS in Colorado for buying rhino horns—and, along with his brother-in-law, Michael Hegarty, later served six months in federal prison for smuggling; the Michael Slattery Jr. buying horns in Texas was Michael Levan Slattery’s son. Michael and Jeremiah O’Brien, the brothers stopped at Ireland’s Shannon Airport who were later arrested and convicted of illegally importing eight horns, are members of the Bishop O’Brien clan. The duplicate names have made tracking them hard. “If Dan O’Brien opens a bank account in Germany, which Dan O’Brien is it?” says Fleming. “There’s 15 Dan O’Briens in Rathkeale.” They have one other thing in common, says Fleming: “They’re always on the lookout for the next commodity to make big money from.” ||||
Catching the Irish Gang Behind Europe's Rhino-Horn Thefts
Adam Higginbotham wrote in Businessweek, “On Nov. 17, 2010, a few days after O’Brien and Hegarty were arrested by the USFWS in Colorado, Reid convened a meeting in the Hague with Europol intelligence analysts and fellow liaison officers from a dozen member states. He explained how the rash of crimes they had been reporting all originated with a single criminal network of Irish Traveller families; and for the first time he revealed their involvement in the illegal rhino horn trade. As a result of the meeting, the Rathkeale Rovers became the target of a pan-European investigation designated Operation Oakleaf. [Source: Adam Higginbotham, Businessweek, January 2, 2014 ||||]
“Even as the police forces of 33 European countries—and the USFWS, which soon sent agents to operational meetings at Europol—began coordinating their efforts against the Rovers, the gang’s quest for rhino horn intensified. In South Africa, two Rathkealers were caught trying to hire gunmen to poach rhinos. In Europe they abandoned their trucks and their door-to-door frauds to begin flying from place to place, visiting castles, stately homes, and natural history museums. The curators of dusty trophy rooms and taxidermy collections in every corner of the continent soon faced an epidemic of burglaries. ||||
“The common denominator,” says Fleming, “was it all came back to Rathkeale.” The evidence was scattered—a telephone intercept here, some video footage there, a license plate. In many museums the robberies were preceded by visits from men described as Irish, who arrived asking to see rhino exhibits or other unusual items and left after taking pictures. When the thieves were caught in the act, they rarely turned out to be the Rathkealers themselves, but workmen the clans employed on asphalting jobs or criminals hired from Britain for the purpose. Few were experts. After a break-in at Portugal’s Coimbra museum one night in April 2011, during which two 18th century rhino horns were lifted, police isolated the traffic logged on the nearest cell phone tower during the robbery. They found that a call had been placed from inside the building at 1 a.m. to a number with an area code of 086—an Irish cell phone registered to the wife of a senior member of one of the Rathkeale clans. The thieves apparently were calling for last-minute directions. ||||
“As the robberies continued, Operation Oakleaf began to disentangle the Rathkeale network. Investigators broke down the clan structures and affiliations and identified the two dozen most significant figures in the rhino trafficking ring. In September 2011, Portuguese police stopped an Australian antiques dealer, not named by authorities, at the Lisbon airport as he and his son prepared to board a flight to Dublin. A search of their luggage revealed €100,000 in cash and six rhino horns, with an estimated total value of more than $500,000. According to the CAB detectives, the dealer was based in Shanghai and had been flying into Europe as often as once a week to meet members of the Rathkeale Rovers in France, Spain, and Portugal. Charged with smuggling offenses under CITES, the Australian is suspected of being the original middleman in the clans’ trafficking ring, responsible for selling stolen and smuggled horns to customers in Asia. ||||
Arrest of Members Irish Rhino Horn Thieves
Adam Higginbotham wrote in Businessweek, “Back in Ireland, Michael Kealy of Rathkeale was arrested on a European warrant for his involvement in the daylight robbery of a rhino horn from an auctioneer in a McDonald’s parking lot in Britain, and later served three months in prison for his part in the crime. John Quilligan, of Roches Road in Rathkeale, was later picked up in Dublin in connection with two thefts of rhino horns in Vienna and extradited to Austria, but released soon afterward, according to CAB detectives. In January 2013, a series of coordinated raids across eight European countries led to the arrests of 30 more individuals with Rathkeale connections. [Source: Adam Higginbotham, Businessweek, January 2, 2014 ||||]
“On Sept. 13, 2013, the climax of Operation Oakleaf, police staged simultaneous raids on eight locations in the U.K. and Ireland. As dawn broke, officers of the Cambridgeshire constabulary used a crowbar and a battering ram to smash open the door of a caravan parked at the Smithy Fen Traveller encampment in England and arrested Richard Kerry O’Brien, the King of the Travellers himself. O’Brien slumped on a couch in his underwear, hands cuffed behind his back, as the police searched the caravan. Taken in for questioning, he was later released on bail; four rhino horns were found during the raid. In Rathkeale, the CAB and armed Irish police seized artwork and computers from O’Brien’s house. ||||
“The following day the USFWS finally caught up with Michael Slattery Jr. at Gate 55 of Newark Liberty International Airport. Slattery was preparing to leave for London when he was arrested by agents from the bureau, part of an investigation into rhino horn trafficking named Operation Crash. In November, Slattery pled guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act, which forbids trade in illegally obtained wildlife. Brought before a judge in Brooklyn, he burst into tears. ||||
“In the wake of Operation Oakleaf, the epidemic of rhino horn burglaries in Europe has subsided, and those taken from the natural history museum of Ireland’s storage facility in April 2013 are among the last to have been reported stolen. (Those heads have not been recovered, and no arrests have been made, but law enforcement officials say they have little doubt the Rovers are responsible.) The thefts have slowed partly because museum curators, now more aware of the horns’ value, have removed them from display or replaced them with resin replicas. But it’s mainly because the Traveller clans have already taken everything they could. “They’ve exhausted the rhino horns that were available,” says Claffey. ||||
“With even the stuffed animals in the Dead Zoo hunted to extinction, the Rathkeale Rovers have turned to the quest for another rare commodity. More than recovering rhino horns, the British operation that led to the arrest of Richard Kerry O’Brien in September was focused on reclaiming 18 Chinese artifacts from the Ming and Qing dynasties, stolen in two separate museum robberies in Britain in 2012. The objects, more than 400 years old, were valued at £20 million and almost certainly stolen to order. Recently, security guards at the Chester Beatty Library at Dublin castle reported a visitor who seemed especially interested in its collection of antique Chinese jade. He didn’t much resemble the other whispering aesthetes examining the library’s renowned Eastern treasures, but he took a few pictures with his iPhone. Soon after he left, the museum curators took the precaution of removing every last piece of jade from display. “It’s rhino horns today and Chinese artifacts tomorrow,” Claffey says. “God knows what it will be next week.” ||||
Texas Emerging as Center for Illegal Trade of Black Rhino Horns
Nick Swartsell wrote in the Dallas News, “A taxidermy auction isn’t the kind of place you’d expect to find international intrigue. But among shoppers browsing rows of mounted bucks and zebra pelts for a bit of hunting lodge chic, smugglers have been snatching up black rhinoceros horns from Texas auction houses and selling them on the black market. The illicit trade is global. Authorities say smugglers travel to Texas to buy the horns of the African-native rhinos and sell them to dealers in California and New York. These middlemen then ship them to Asia, where they command huge sums as an alleged cancer cure or party drug. [Source: Nick Swartsell, Dallas News, November 10, 2013]
In November 2013, “Michael Slattery pleaded guilty to smuggling rhino horns he bought in Texas. Slattery flew from London in 2010 to buy a mounted black rhino head at a taxidermy auction in Austin. Authorities say Slattery is part of the Rathkeale Rovers, a group of Irish nomads active in organized crime, including smuggling operations. Last year, members of the Rovers broke into a number of museums in Europe to steal rhino horns. According to court documents, the auction house initially refused to sell to Slattery because he wasn’t a Texas resident. Slattery then found an unidentified Texas day laborer to stand in as the purchaser.
He and two other suspects later sold the horns, along with two others, to a Chinese buyer in New York City for $50,000, authorities allege. Officers from the Fish and Wildlife Service finally apprehended Slattery in a New Jersey airport. Edward Grace, a law enforcement officer with the service, said the prevalence of big-game hunting groups and auction houses in Texas makes the state attractive for smugglers looking to grab exotic hunting trophies. Grace works with Operation Crash, an agency program designed to catch people smuggling the horns.
A federal law called the Lacey Act prohibits moving endangered species across state lines or selling them to out-of-state buyers. Violations can result in felony charges with fines up to $250,000 and five years in prison. Grace said the wildlife agency and the Justice Department are investigating others in Texas in connection with horn smuggling.
Slattery’s arrest isn’t the first with a Texas connection. In 2012, Wade Steffen, a 34-year-old rodeo rider from Hico, was arrested at the Long Beach Airport in California. Steffen’s bag contained more than $300,000 in cash and a digital camera full of pictures of rhino horns. Later, searches found Steffen had $1 million in cash and gold along with a number of the horns. Authorities say Steffen was buying from a large taxidermy auction in Fort Worth and then handing the horns off to associates in California, who subsequently shipped them to Vietnam. He was sentenced to six months in federal prison and $28,000 in fines.
Auction house owners in Texas are quick to point out that most of their customers are just ordinary Texans looking to buy items legally to decorate their homes, restaurants or bars. John Brommel runs the Corner Shoppe taxidermy shop in Austin and organizes twice-yearly auctions in Fort Worth. He said he takes great pains to ensure that buyers of Lacey Act-protected items are residents of Texas who know they cannot transport their purchases across state lines.
Brommel said the love of big game is part of the Texas hunting lifestyle. “People grow up hunting and fishing in Texas,” he said, “and that whole thing is just a part of their life.” The Dallas Safari Club, a big-game hunting group, recently announced plans to auction off a permit to hunt black rhinos in Namibia, where limited hunting of the animals is legal. The club contends the hunt will help conservation efforts by eliminating weak members of rhino herds. The group said all of the expected $250,000 to $1 million made from the auction will go to conservation efforts in Namibia. The group is asking federal agencies to issue permits allowing hunters to bring carcasses from the hunt back to the United States.
Legal Black Rhino Hunter Receives Death Threats
Heather Saul wrote in The Independent, “Texas hunter Corey Knowlton has said he has received death threats and has hired full-time security after being identified as the winner of an auction to shoot and kill an endangered black rhino in Namibia. Knowlton paid $350,000 (£214,119) at the Dallas Safari Club sponsored auction for the licence but faced a storm of fierce criticism from animal rights campaigners and wildlife groups. He was named by fellow hunter Tom Opre as the man who placed the winning bid earlier this week. He said his Facebook page has since been flooded with threats to hurt and kill him and his family. [Source: Heather Saul, The Independent, January 18, 2014]
Knowlton told KTVT that since then, he’s feared for his family’s safety. “They’re wanting to kill me,” he said. “They’re wanting to kill my children. They’re wanting to skin us alive.” “I’m a hunter,” Knowlton told WFAA. “I want to experience a black rhino. I want to be intimately involved with a black rhino. If I go over there and shoot it or not shoot it, it’s beyond the point. “They don’t know who I am. They don’t know what I’m about. They don’t even understand the process.” On his Facebook page Knowlton posted a picture of himself with a bear he killed and the caption: "Brown Bear, an awesome dream that came true for me."
Ben Carter, executive director of the Safari Club, has defended the auction. He argued the rhino to be hunted is old, male and non-breeding and is likely to be targeted for removal anyway because it was becoming aggressive and threatening other wildlife. But the auction was condemned by wildlife and animal rights groups, and the FBI earlier said it was investigating death threats against members of the club.
Knowlton defended his actions on his Facebook page earlier this week. He wrote: “Thank you all for your comments about conservation and the current situation regarding the Black Rhino. “I am considering all sides and concerns involved in this unique situation. Please don't rush to judgment with emotionally driven criticism towards individuals on either sides of this issue. “I deeply care about all of the inhabitants of this planet and I am looking forward to more educated discussion regarding the ongoing conservation effort for the Black Rhino.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Save the Rhino, Taxidermy Emporium, Tennant's Auction House
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2014