Armed with skin as durable as armor and an intimidating temperament, African rhinos are well equipped to face down almost any natural predator -- but when it comes to the horrific activities of illegal rhino horn smugglers, even they could use some backup. In the past week, over 150 federal agents raided homes and businesses across the United States in a crackdown on an international rhino horn ring.
Each year, hundreds of endangered African rhinos are killed or injured by poachers to serve the increasingly lucrative rhino horn black market, where horns are worth more weight than gold. But while wildlife officials in Africa continue to do their part to keep poachers at bay, U.S. federal agents have begun to dismantel important elements of the illegal trade of wildlife elsewhere.
According to The Los Angeles Times, seven people were arrested in operations across California, Texas, New Jersey, and New York. In addition to a cache of rhino horns found during the raid, Fish and Wildlife authorities seized "more than $1 million in cash, $1 million in gold bars, diamonds and Rolex watches, along with 20 rhino horns, in the raids."
Rhino horns are composed of keratin, the same substance found in fingernails and hair, but are nevertheless believed to have healing properties according to some traditional Asian medicine. The demand for rhino parts has been largely driven by this ancient mysticism wherein practitioners often pay tens of thousands of dollars per pound of horn -- effectively putting a bounty on rhinos in the wild.
By arresting those involved in the import and export of rhino horns in the United States, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe hopes some relief will be offered to the diminishing population of endangered rhinos in Africa:
"By taking out this ring of rhino horn traffickers, we have shut down a major source of black market horn and dealt a serious blow to rhino horn smuggling both in the U.S. and globally."