Rhino horn trafficking bust nets pro rodeo champion Wade Steffen
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2012:
LONG BEACH, Calif.–-Rhino horn trafficking and rodeo intersected in February 2012 with the arrest of 2010 All-American ProRodeo Finals steer wrestling co-champion Wade Steffen, 32, in Hico, Texas, along with alleged California co-conspirators Jimmy Kha, 49, Mai Nguyen, 41, Kha’s son Felix, 26, and Jin Zhao Feng, a Chinese citizen who allegedly arranged the transport of the horns to China.
Steffen, the Khas, and Nguyen were charged with rhino horn trafficking in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act. The Lacey Act prohibits interstate traffic in protected species.
Steffen, his wife Molly, and his mother Merrily Steffen “were stopped by Transportation Security Administration officials at Long Beach Airport on February 9, 2012 with $337,000 in their carry-on luggage,” reported Kenneth R. Weiss of the Los Angeles Times. Photos retrieved from a camera carried by Merrily Steffen included images of “$100 bills bound with rubber bands” and “rhino horns being weighed on scales,” according to the arrest warrant for Wade Steffen. Molly and Merrily Steffen were not arrested.
“During their probe,” Weiss wrote, “wildlife officials intercepted at least 18 shipments of rhino horns from the Steffen family and the owner of a Missouri auction house that trades in live and stuffed exotic animals, court records show. The items were repackaged and sent along to Jimmy Kha’s export business or Nguyen’s nail shop, then presumably smuggled out of the country, according to law enforcement sources and court records. Investigators tracked the movements of hundreds of thousands of dollars though bank wire transfers,” Weiss summarized, “including to accounts in China.”
The suspects were rounded up during the last weekend in February 2012 in raids by more than 150 federal agents and local law enforcement on homes and businesses in a dozen states. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service spokesperson Ed Grace indicated that additional arrests would follow. Grace said the raids seized 37 rhino horns, more than $1 million in cash, and about $1 million in valuables.
“Steffen is accused of buying old rhino horns around the country and selling them to Kha since January 2010,” summarized Barry Schlachter of the Fort Worth Star Telegram. “The alleged transactions apparently occurred between rodeos, which had earned him $247,000 over a career dating to 2006.”
Steffen also trained camels to be ridden. Steffen in March 2011 “was attacked and badly bitten by a camel,” Schlachter wrote.”
The camel “broke two bones in his left arm, tore two arteries,” and damaged nerves in Steffen’s hand and fingers,” Molly Steffen reportedly posted to Facebook.”
“He has not competed in a rodeo since then, and may not for a while, as the legal process runs its course,” offered Bruce Gietzen of KXXV-TV News in Waco.
Separate but simultaneous alleged rhino horn trafficking cases brought the arrests of antique dealer David Hausman in New York City and alleged rhino horn buyer Amir Even Ezra in New Jersey.
South African National Parks chief executive David Mabunda on March 1, 2012 acknowledged the arrests of four Kruger National Park staff for alleged involvement in rhino horn trafficking. At least 43 rhinos were poached in Kruger National Park, among 110 rhinos were poached throughout South Africa, during the first 90 days of 2012. A record 448 rhinos poached in South Africa during 2011, up from 333 in 2010, 122 in 2009, 83 in 2008, and just 13 in 2007.
“The number of rhinoceros killed in Zimbabwe parks decreased to 23 in 2011, from 30 in 2010,” reported Peter Matam-banadzo of the Harare Herald–but perhaps less because of improved anti-poaching law enforcement than because of a dwindling Zimbabean rhino population.
China, though the primary destination of trafficked rhino horn worldwide, banned the import and medicinal use of rhino horns in 1993, in compliance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which has forbidden trade in rhino horns since 1976.
Nonetheless, a Chinese firm called Long Hui Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd. “has imported rhinos from South Africa to farms in Hainan and Yunnan provinces, with the goal of building a ‘rhino industrial base,'” but has not yet started to sell the horns, reported Erin Conway-Smith of the Global Post on February 29, 2012. According to Peninsula Metropolis Daily, published in Qingdao, China, “Rhinos have fallen ill from poor living conditions, the animals won’t breed, and when student activists got wind of Long Hui’s secretive scheme recently, they wrote about it on Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging site. The post was quickly shared thousands of times by outraged animal lovers,” Smith recounted.