NEWARK, N.J. (CN) - A federal judge imposed a 70-month sentence Wednesday against the Chinese man behind a multimillion-dollar smuggling ring focused on objects made from rhino horn and elephant ivory.
The Justice Department called Zhifei Li's sentence "one of the longest sentences to be imposed in the United States for a wildlife smuggling offense."
Li, 30, owned Overseas Treasure Finding in his native Shandong, China. He was arrested in Florida last year, shortly after arriving in the United States, on federal charges brought under seal in New Jersey.
Prosecutors said in the days leading up to his arrest, Li attended an antique show and then met up in a Miami Beach hotel room with an undercover agent from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Li bought two endangered black rhinoceros horns from the agent for $59,000.
He pleaded guilty
before U.S. District Judge Esther Salas this past December to 11 counts, including Lacey Act violations and smuggling.
The Justice Department noted Wednesday that "Li admitted that he was the 'boss' of three antique dealers in the United States whom he paid to help obtain wildlife items and smuggle them to him via Hong Kong."
One such dealer was Qiang Wang aka Jeffrey Wang who was sentenced in New York to 37 months after pleading guilty
"Li played a leadership and organizational role in the smuggling conspiracy by arranging for financing to pay for the wildlife, purchasing and negotiating prices, directing how to smuggle the items out of the United States, and getting the assistance of additional collaborators in Hong Kong to receive the goods and smuggle them to him in mainland China," the Justice Department added.
Li's guilty plea also included an admission that he sold 30 smuggled, raw rhinoceros horns worth approximately $3 million - approximately $17,500 per pound - to factories in China where raw rhinoceros horns are carved into Zuo Jiu
antiques, a Mandarin phrase that means "to make it as old."
Some Chinese people believe that drinking from rhinoceros horn "libation" cups with bring good health. The giant, prehistoric beasts are protected by U.S. and international laws. More than 90 percent of wild rhino populations have been slaughtered illegally since the 1970s because of the price their horns can bring, the Justice Department said.
"South Africa, for example, has witnessed a rapid escalation in poaching of live animals, rising from 13 in 2007 to more than 618 in 2012," prosecutors said in the statement.
Humans are the only predator of the rhinoceros. Prosecutors said increasing demand is partly responsible for fueling a thriving black market that includes fake antiques made from recently hunted rhinoceros.
The sentence imposed Wednesday by Judge Salas also carries two years of supervised release and forfeiture of $3.5 million plus several Asian artifacts.
Various ivory objects that agents seized as part of the investigation have also been surrendered.
Prosecutions such as these represent the successes of Operation Crash, a nationwide effort to stop the black market trade of rhinoceros horns and other protected species. The operation takes its name from the term crash given for a herd of rhinoceros.