By Elizabeth Dilts
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Chinese citizen, the admitted ringleader of an international smuggling operation that trafficked in $4.5 million worth of rhinoceros horns, ivory cups and trinkets, pleaded guilty on Thursday in federal court in New Jersey, prosecutors said.
Zhifei Li, 29, said he had sold 30 raw rhino horns for as much as $17,500 each to Chinese factories that carve them into cups that are thought to improve health, according to federal prosecutors.
"The brutality of animal poaching, wherever it occurs, feeds the demand of a multibillion-dollar illegal international market," said Paul Fishman, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, at a press conference. "Zhifei Li's conviction is a warning to those who would be lured by the profits of dealing in cruelty."
Among the horns sold, 13 were from black rhinos, which are critically endangered and have a population of less than 5,000, according to a statement issued by the U.S. Attorney's office.
Investigators began focusing on Li in 2011, when a government informant sold two raw rhino horns to a middleman at the Vince Lombardi rest stop on the New Jersey stretch of Interstate 95. That middleman sold the horns to a New York City antiques dealer who worked directly for Li, prosecutors said.
The horns were wrapped in duct tape and hidden in porcelain vases. Labeled as handicrafts on customs documents, they were smuggled to Li's connections in Hong Kong, and then on to the factories in mainland China, prosecutors said.
In total, Li's New York and New Jersey connections helped him buy 25 raw rhino horns, including 13 black rhino horns, they said.
Li also bought $500,000 worth of carved ivory items from U.S. auction houses, which were not named, and several other horns and elephant tusks from connections in Texas and Florida, according to the release.
Shortly before traveling to Miami for an antiques fair, Li texted his Queens, New York, art dealer that he had $500,000 to spend on rhino horns and ivory, prosecutors said.
An undercover U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent arrested Li in a Miami hotel room, where the agent sold Li two government-supplied Black Rhino horns worth $59,000 each.
Li pleaded guilty to 11 counts of smuggling, illegal wildlife trafficking and lying on customs documents. While he already forfeited $3.5 million to the Department of Justice, and he could face up to 10 years in prison for each charge.
(Reporting by Elizabeth Dilts; Editing by Scott Malone and Gunna Dickson)