Poachers in Africa have been slaughtering rhinos and elephants by the thousands, teaming up with organized international cartels and criminals to profit from the illegal trade of horns and tusks from these endangered animals.
As part of a broad U.S. strategy to combat this pernicious wildlife trafficking, Edward Grace of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been leading a nationwide law enforcement investigation known as Operation Crash that is targeting those who smuggle, sell and trade the very lucrative rhino horns and elephant ivory.
So far, the work of Grace and his team, in collaboration with law enforcement authorities across the nation, has led to 41 arrests, 30 convictions and the seizure of smuggled tusks and horns with a street value in excess of $75 million. In addition to crimes against wildlife, the defendants also have been charged with money laundering, tax evasion, falsifying documents, mail fraud and bribery.
“Wildlife trafficking is one of the most horrific and immediate threats to global biodiversity, and has the very real possibility of wiping some of the world’s most stunning and beloved creatures, such as rhinos and elephants, from the face of the Earth forever,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Daniel Ashe.
“This is a global problem, but America plays a significant role since much of the illegal trade occurs within the United States, transits across our borders or involves American citizens,” Ashe said. “Ed Grace’s leadership of Operation Crash has resulted in tangible and significant results, putting key figures in the shadowy world of rhino horn smuggling and black market trading behind bars, and creating a real deterrent for those who might otherwise see these activities as low risk.”
Grace secured funding several years ago for his ambitious operation, recognizing the growing threat and the involvement of ruthless organized criminal elements. He put together a team of 11 agents, developed a plan of action, and launched and supervised multiple investigations. He worked with wildlife inspectors at ports of entry, consulted with intelligence analysts and forensic scientists, and worked with federal authorities nationwide.
The investigations Grace led have “reverberated globally,” and Operation Crash has sent a strong message that there will be legal consequences for this kind of activity in the U.S., said Marshall Jones, a senior advisor at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
In 2013, President Obama created the Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, bringing together 17 federal departments and agencies to strengthen enforcement, reduce demand for protected wildlife body parts and improve international cooperation on the problem. Operation Crash has played a crucial role in enforcement.
As part of that effort, President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping reached an agreement in September 2015 to work together to enact “nearly complete bans on the import and export of ivory,” Jones said. China, the world’s largest consumer of ivory, “needed to see we are willing to take strong law enforcement action, and Ed Grace’s investigations have helped put pressure on them,” he added.
“Ed is the one who inspired and led this operation, and he has been pivotal to this effort,” said Jones.
In one investigation, Grace and his team uncovered an international smuggling network that was sending packages of rhino horns from locations across the country to be sold at an auction house in Beverly Hills, California.
The investigation documented the sale and smuggling of 100 rhino horns, and the senior auction administrator pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to smuggle wildlife products valued at more than $1 million. In another instance, a member of an Irish organized crime group was arrested and later admitted that he and others had traveled throughout the U.S. buying and selling rhino horns. He was sentenced to 14 months in prison and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and forfeit $50,000 in illegal proceeds.
Two years ago, a Chinese antiques dealer was arrested in Miami and later convicted and sentenced to 70 months in jail for smuggling 30 rhino horns and numerous objects made of elephant ivory into China from the U.S. The goods had an estimated value of $4.5 million.
“For a long time, wildlife crime wasn’t treated as a serious crime even though it had become a lucrative business tied to organized crime,” Grace said. “We are now bringing these traffickers to justice.”
William Woody, chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s law enforcement office, described Grace as “tenacious and focused,” adding that Operation Crash has been successful because of his smart decision-making and his ability to work across agencies and with international partners.
Grace said he is hopeful that the arrests and convictions will send a strong message that there will be a price to pay for those who are profiting from trafficking in rhino horns and elephant tusks.
“It’s an honor to do this work that I’m passionate about and I believe it’s making a difference,” Grace said. “If 20 years from now these species are surviving, I’ll know that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped make that happen.”