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Texas emerging as center for illegal trade of black rhino horns

Texas emerging as center for illegal trade of black rhino horns


U.S. Attorney’s office, Brooklyn
This undated photo shows horns from endangered black rhinos taken from Michael Slattery, who pleaded guilty on Tuesday to U.S. charges he used forged documents to sell horns to a New York collector for $50,000. Authorities say Slattery is associated with an Ireland-based group responsible for thefts of rhino horns across Europe.


Washington Bureau


WASHINGTON — 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.

Last week, 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 last month.

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.

Black rhino horn sells for up to $25,000 a pound in China and Vietnam, where rarity makes it a status symbol rumored to possess powers to cure hangovers or disease. Some young people in these countries even use ground up horn as a drug. The demand has greatly increased poaching.

“There’s this myth out there that rhino horn has properties that cure cancer,” Grace said. “But there are a number of studies that show rhino horn is just like fingernails. It has no medicinal properties.”

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. He declined to provide more details.

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. Steffen did not reply to requests for comment.

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.


Status: Critically endangered

Range: Central to southern Africa

Size: Up to 3,000 pounds

Diet: Twigs and leafy vegetation

Lifespan: Up to 50 years

Herd size: Up to 12

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