Extinction Through Profitable Crime

The Rhinoceros

By John M. Sellar, O.B.E.
Stock image of a rhinoceros in the wild.


In July 2013 the author published an article in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin that provided an overview of wildlife crime.1 Generally and historically a concern for provincial and state game wardens or federal fish and wildlife service special agents, this issue warrants the attention of the entire law enforcement community. Such illegal actions, which involve a growing engagement of highly sophisticated crime networks and syndicates, drive specific animals toward extinction.

In particular, the rhinoceros—in existence since prehistoric times—faces oblivion in parts of the globe. The actions toward this creature dramatically illustrate how wildlife trafficking rapidly has become a significant, profitable, and violent form of organized crime.



The savannah plains of Africa and jungles of Asia may seem remote and, consequently, distant from the law enforcement concerns of the developed world. However, people commit unspeakable crimes against various forms of wildlife, including the rhino.


For instance, during 2014 poachers killed 1,215 rhinos in South Africa. Figures for 2015 stayed roughly the same. However, in stark contrast, such criminals held responsibility for only 13 deaths in 2007.2 This signals a disturbing trend with no end in sight.

In November 2011 Hong Kong customs officers seized 33 rhino horns, as well as elephant ivory, concealed in a container arriving from Cape Town, South Africa.3 Because African rhinos have two horns on their heads, at least 16 had to die for this smuggling to occur.

Thieves across Europe stole 20 rhino horns from museums, auction houses, and private homes during the first 6 months of 2011. Europol identified the involvement of an Irish organized crime group in many of the acts. The criminals later targeted antique carved objects for decoration or cultural and traditional use.4

Early 2011 also saw the last remaining rhino killed in Vietnam, ending the species in that country. A poacher committed this crime within a national park, which supposedly provided the highest level of protection to the animal.5

Mr. Sellar
Mr. Sellar retired after law enforcement service in the Scottish Police and United Nations and is a recognized advisor in the area of wildlife crime.


Although perhaps bearable in conservation terms in South Africa, poaching has more catastrophic effects elsewhere. The rhino appears extinct in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of Africa’s largest countries, which should—in theory—have significant numbers of the animal.6 Populations in other parts of the continent, such as Kenya and Tanzania, face considerable risk; some rhinos receive 24-hour protection from guards.7


Although not all rhinos die from gunshots, firearms remain the preferred harvesting tools. Many animals have suffered poisoning. Some wounded rhinos survive long enough to escape the criminals only to die later.

Poachers sometimes tranquilize animals by using darts laced with chemicals legally accessible only to veterinary surgeons. This method helps criminals avoid antipoaching personnel who may hear gunshots. These drugged rhinos have their horns removed with axes or chainsaws while still alive; some bleed to death after recovering consciousness.

Individuals seeking to obtain rhino horn—for whatever illicit purpose—have another option. They may apply for permission to export horns obtained as trophies during the course of legal hunting. For instance, because South Africa has healthy and numerous populations of rhinos, it licenses such hunts.8

Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates transnational trade of wildlife, persons can conduct such crossborder movements of rhino-horn trophies legally. But, the hunter who killed the animal can export them only as souvenirs for personal use.9

During the past 7 to 8 years, considerable exploitation of this legal hunting provision has occurred. Initially, authorities considered Vietnamese citizens posing as bona fide hunters the main culprits, but persons from other nations, including Thailand and the Czech Republic, also feature.10

High-level criminals seem to recruit and finance such imposters to undertake activities like they would “mules” and couriers who acquire rhino horns in Europe and North America and then smuggle them to Asia.11 Some fraudulent hunts have cost up to $100,000 each, including licenses and fees, travel and accommodation costs, and other variables.12

Foreign workers in South Africa also undergo recruitment to pose as hunters, with one case involving female prostitutes from Thailand.13 Professional hunting guides and outfitters have helped clients track rhinos and handed over a rifle when within range only to observe that the person never has handled a gun. Several hunting companies simply take advantage of the exploitation by increasing their fees.14


Cultural Items

Perhaps horn goblets hold the greatest value for criminals. A centuries-old practice in China entailed carving rhino horns into art objects. The finest work of this nature related to the production of libation cups or ordinary drinking vessels. Because of the association between rhino horns and traditional medicine, combined with a belief that the horn itself had mystical properties, Chinese people prized such objects, which made them expensive. People used the cups for consuming a range of liquids, not just medicines or tonics. Some individuals believed that a poisonous liquid would cause the horn to effervesce. For this reason, emperors and other individuals of high status sought such chalices.15

In 2010 one of these cups sold at auction in the United States for over $3 million.16 The number of such items coming into the market in recent years has increased dramatically. Authorities do not know how many originate from illegal activities or prove counterfeit, perhaps recently poached and carved to look like antique objects.

In Yemen people carved horns to serve as the handles of daggers called “jambiyas,” traditionally presented to young men as they came of age. The country banned the import, export, or reexport of rhino horn in the early 1990s.17 However, it seems likely that some demand for daggers with rhino-horn handles remains and that some illegal imports continue.


Demand for medicines derived from wildlife may seem unbelievable or fanciful. However, such use reflects centuries-old practices and cultural approaches to treatment as deeply ingrained in some individuals and societies as religious beliefs.

As a medicinal ingredient, people have regarded rhino horn as an effective remedy for fevers. Some cultures think of it as a lifesaving product. Many practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine consider it an essential treatment in cases of cerebrovascular disease. For individuals who have a stroke, some persons believe that the administration of horn-related products reduces the spread and degree of paralysis associated with clots or interruptions in blood flow to the brain.18

Most countries where people have historically employed it have banned the domestic use of rhino horn. For example, China, one of the previously most significant importing countries, has prohibited its use since 1993.19 However, sizeable Asian communities in other continents around the world also create demand for traditional medicine.

Perhaps medicinal demand has garnered insufficient recognition in recent years. Despite the abolishment of legal use, some specialist and “underground” practitioners may continue to seek rhino horn and prescribe and provide related remedies to wealthy consumers who insist on traditional treatments and willingly pay for them. Therefore, clandestine sales of rhino-horn products seemingly have continued, much like similar markets for medicines containing bear and tiger ingredients.

A new demand emerging in the late 2000s derived from the opinion that ingesting powdered rhinoceros horn dissolved in water, alcohol, or other liquids would halt the progression of cancer. This belief apparently spread throughout parts of Far East Asia and became especially strong in Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, China. Those trading in rhino horn receive huge sums of money from cancer sufferers, who may even unknowingly purchase fake products.20

Sales of bowls and utensils specifically manufactured for crushing rhino horn have occurred openly in parts of Asia. Of course, some cancer sufferers will pay almost anything, hoping that they will enter remission. Some individuals believe so strongly that they take powdered rhino horn while also undergoing radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatments.21

Cancer-related demand appears the most significant driver of poaching and illegal trade in recent years. However, some affluent consumers also desire it to stave off hangovers or simply as a status symbol.22

Because this aspect of illegal trade remains understudied, little evidence exists related to prices. However, figures have ranged perhaps from $70,000 per kilo to $240,000 for a single horn.


The conservation community now widely acknowledges that enforcement-related issues deserve the highest priority to save the most endangered species of the world for future generations. Why protect fauna and flora habitats if poachers meanwhile kill off the animals within?

Tackling wildlife crimes targeting the rhino and other species requires a response from the law enforcement community as a whole. Anything less ignores the significant levels of criminality that occur daily and impact nations’ governance and general rule of law. At the very least, police executives need to become aware of and, in turn, alert their personnel to these disturbing crimes. They must recognize that their agencies have more resources to respond or assist than a sole game warden.

However, the wider international community also needs to address these matters urgently. If not, enforcement officers will face an enormous dilemma without the needed support.

Despite the arrest and, in some cases, prosecution of a number of smugglers, poachers, and illicit dealers, enforcement agencies still must achieve an international flow of intelligence and evidence. Such cooperation will help disrupt and prosecute the criminal networks orchestrating the poaching and trafficking.

International Efforts

The International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC)—consisting of the CITES Secretariat, U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, World Bank, World Customs Organization, and INTERPOL—acknowledges that crimes directed at rhino species deserve high priority among the law enforcement community. Its members have issued specialized intelligence briefings and initiated a number of projects (e.g., capacity building in relevant countries related to controlled delivery techniques and financial crime investigations) that can support work at the national level.23

Domestic crime authorities cannot address the trafficking of rhino horn and other illicit wildlife-related products alone. National customs, police, and other specialized enforcement agencies must liaise with their counterparts abroad. Authorities must apply not only laws relating to protected species but the full range of criminal statutes and investigatory powers.

To this end, there seems little doubt that some fraudulent hunting activities involve money laundering, as well as avoidance of currency controls, import and export duties, and related taxes. Abuse of diplomatic immunity also has occurred, and South Africa expelled two officials and declared them persona non grata.24

Agencies already may seek some individuals guilty of other crimes, such as trafficking narcotics, weapons, or humans. Although some organizations may not devote extensive resources to bring people to justice for wildlife crime, they should remember that police jailed one high-profile criminal for failing to pay taxes—not his gang-related activities.25

South Africa has highly coordinated multiagency responses in place that involve all levels of law enforcement agencies, and prosecutors use conspiracy and racketeering legislation against those arrested. Its judiciary has recognized the seriousness of the problem and has handed down jail sentences of up to 40 years.26

Remarkably, no ranger, police professional, or military officer in South Africa—despite joining what some people regard as a war—has been killed.27 Many top poachers have the best-quality hunting rifles, and those in well-organized and highly orchestrated gangs carry automatic weapons, such as AK-47s. However, estimates indicated that antipoaching personnel have shot and killed at least 200 poachers during encounters since 2008.28

National Measures

CITES—an international treaty—delivers the legal basis for its 183 signatory parties to respond to those who violate its provisions. But, these essentially include infractions of trade regulations; the convention does not exist to counter criminality.29 Consequently, the laws, such as the Endangered Species Act in the United States, each country enacted to implement CITES seldom incorporate adequate investigative powers or penalties commensurate with the level of wrongdoing.30

Therefore, law enforcement personnel and prosecutors must look not just at the poaching or smuggling incidents themselves but at the motivators and facilitators. In doing so, they can employ the full range of criminal statutes or common laws to bring individuals and groups engaging in corruption, money laundering, racketeering, fraud, and every other organized-crime activity to justice.

The success of Operation Crash demonstrates the possibilities when officials take an imaginative and innovative approach. Conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners, this effort has uncovered illegal actions, such as violations of the Endangered Species and Lacey Acts, conspiracy, smuggling, money laundering, mail fraud, tax evasion, bribery, and falsifying documents. Authorities have investigated more than 30 individuals and companies, and prosecutions have resulted in a total of nearly 34 years imprisonment and forfeitures of $5.4 million.31


Some people believe that authorities should resolve the problem by legalizing trade in rhino horn. This view remains strong among some individuals in South Africa, especially those who could gain legal access to rhino horn upon authorization of trade. Further, conservationists have deemed the current poaching levels sustainable. They base this opinion on the fact that South Africa has the largest number of rhinos in the world and that, at the moment, they breed sufficiently to replace the poached animals.32

Notably, rhino horn consists mainly of the substance keratin,which resembles the content of the human fingernail.33 If trimmed or removed, a rhino horn will grow back, albeit slowly. Perhaps sufficient rhinos remain in some countries to allow farming or some form of sustainable harvesting of horn to take place. Possibly, some of the live rhinos legally traded from South Africa to zoos in Asia have undergone illicit “pedicures.”

Nevertheless, the complex arguments for and against legalizing trade in rhino horn range widely. Presently, no government has announced any desire to import rhino horns commercially. International trade would need approval from the countries that are signatories to CITES.34

One view that undoubtedly will arise is the rightfulness to supply—for example, to cancer sufferers—a treatment without basis in any peer-reviewed or scientific evidence of efficacy. After all, if rhino horn truly held the answer to one of the world’s most life-threatening medical conditions, pharmaceutical companies across the globe certainly would rush to use or synthesize it.

One thing holds true—while such arguments take place, rhino deaths, some sustainable and others not, continue to occur. Although South Africa is the only country where sustainability may prove possible, its rhinos are approaching the point where natural births cannot replace animals killed by poachers. It seems reasonable to predict that other populations of this species will become eradicated elsewhere in the world. No response exists for the loss of endangered species. Extinction is forever.


Trafficking in rhinoceros horn provides important lessons for the international law enforcement community. It shows how quickly and devastatingly new types of illegal activity arise. Further, it graphically illustrates how organized and sophisticated those crimes can be and the potentially huge illicit profits they generate. This dilemma also demonstrates how slowly an effective response may take to emerge.

As a whole, law enforcement must respond to the crisis facing endangered species, such as the rhino. Anything else fails to consider the significant levels of criminality that occur daily and impact nations’ governance and general rule of law.

Mr. Sellar can be contacted at john.m.sellar@globalinitiative.net.


John M. Sellar, “Focusing on Wildlife Crime (Parts 1 and 2),” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July 2013, accessed September 6, 2016, https://leb.fbi.gov/2013/july/focusing-on-wildlife-crime-part-1 and https://leb.fbi.gov/2013/july/focusing-on-wildlife-crime-part-2.
“Poaching Statistics,” Save the Rhino, accessed September 6, 2016, https://www.savetherhino.org/rhino_info/poaching_statistics.
Associated Press, “Hong Kong Seizes $2.2 Million in Illegal Rhino Horns, Ivory,” NBC News, November 15, 2011, accessed September 6, 2016, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/45310089/ns/ world_news-asia_pacific/t/hong-kong-seizes-million-illegal-rhino-horns-ivory/.
Mark Wilding, “The Story Behind the Gang That Stole Millions of Dollars Worth of Rhino Horn,” Vice, April 5, 2016, accessed September 6, 2016, http://www.vice.com/read/rathkeale-rovers-irish-traveller-gang-rhino-horn-chinese-artefact-theft.
Associated Press, “Group: Last Javan Rhino in Vietnam Killed for Horn,” USA Today, October 25, 2011, accessed September 6, 2016, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/world/story/2011-10-25/vietnam-javan-rhino/50900574/1.  
“Only 22 Rare White Rhino Survive the War in Congo,” Telegraph, October 5, 2003, accessed September 6, 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/ democraticrepublicofcongo/1443316/Only-22-rare-white-rhino-survive-the-war-in-Congo.html.
“Saving Kenya’s Black Rhinos,” Earthwatch Institute, accessed September 6, 2016, http://earthwatch.org/expeditions/saving-kenyas-black-rhinos; and “Tanzania’s Rhinos–Edging Back from the Brink,” Wildlife Extra, accessed September 6, 2016, http://www.wildlifeextra.com/ go/news/tanzania-rhino.html#cr.
“What Is Trophy Hunting?” Save the Rhino, accessed September 6, 2016, https://www.savetherhino.org/assets/0001/7279/What_is_trophy_hunting.pdf.
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, CITES Acts to Curb Smuggling of Elephant Ivory and Rhino Horn, July 31, 2012, accessed September 6, 2016, https://cites.org/eng/news/pr/2012/20120731_SC62_results.php.
10 International Union for Conservation of Nature and TRAFFIC, Rhinos in Crisis–Poaching and Illegal Trade Reach Highest Levels in Over 20 Years, January 15, 2013, accessed September 12, 2016, https://www.iucn.org/content/rhinos-crisis-%E2%80%93-poaching-and-illegal-trade-reach-highest-levels-over-20-years.
11 “Profiling Ups Risk for Asian Rhino Horn Mules,” Baomoi, accessed September 8, 2016, http://en.baomoi.com/Info/Profiling-ups-risk-for-Asian-rhino-horn-mules/3/531199.epi.
12 For additional information, see John M. Sellar, The U.N.’s Lone Ranger: Combating International Wildlife Crime (Scotland, UK: Whittles Publishing, 2014).
13 “Thai Prostitutes Posed as Big Game Hunters in Elaborate Scam to Illegally Ship Rhino Horns to Far East,” Daily Mail, November 9, 2012, accessed September 8, 2016, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2230515/Thai-prostitutes-posed-big-game-hunters-elaborate-scam-illegally-ship-rhino-horns-Far-East.html.
14 For additional information, see Sellar.
15 Katherine Ellis, “Tackling the Demand for Rhino Horn,” Save the Rhino, accessed September 8, 2016, https://www.savetherhino.org/rhino_info/thorny_issues/tackling_the_demand_for_rhino_ horn.
16 “Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, Christie’s, Sales 2509 and 2339,” The City Review, September 16 and 17, 2010, accessed October 18, 2016, http://www.thecityreview.com/ f10cchincerm.html.
17 Ezzaddin Al-Zain, “The Jambiya: Yemeni Icon and Status Symbol,” Yemen Times, June 24, 2014, accessed September 8, 2016, http://www.yementimes.com/en/1792/photoessay/4017/The-Jambiya-Yemeni-icon-and-status-symbol.htm.
18 Kristin Nowell, Assessment of Rhino Horn as a Traditional Medicine (Geneva, Switzerland: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, April 2012), accessed September 8, 2016, https://cites.org/eng/com/sc/62/E62-47-02-A.pdf.
19 Ellis.
20 Gwynn Guilford, “There’s a Country That Will Pay $300,000 Per Rhino Horn to Cure Cancer and Hangovers, and It’s Wiping Out Rhinos,” Quartz, May 14, 2013, accessed September 8, 2016, http://qz.com/82302/theres-a-country-that-will-pay-300000-per-rhino-horn-to-cure-cancer-and-hangovers-and-its-wiping-out-rhinos/.
21 Ellis.
22 Guilford.
23 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, The International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime, accessed September 12, 2016, https://cites.org/eng/prog/iccwc.php.
24 Julian Rademeyer, Beyond Borders: Crime, Conservation, and Criminal Networks on the Illicit Rhino Horn Trade (The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, July 2016), accessed October 17, 2016, https://www.regjeringen.no/globalassets/departementene/ ud/vedlegg/utvikling/global-initiative-beyond-borders-part2-july-2016-1.pdf.
25 Elizabeth Nix, “8 Things You Should Know About Al Capone,” History, May 5, 2015, accessed September 8, 2016, http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/8-things-you-should-know-about-al-capone.
26 “Major Rhino Horn Trader Sentenced to 40 Years Behind Bars,” WWF, November 9, 2012, accessed September 8, 2016, http://www.wwf.org.uk/about_wwf/press_centre/?unewsid=6306.
27 Author’s personal communications with enforcement agencies in South Africa.
28 Julian Rademeyer, Tipping Point: Transnational Organized Crime and the ‘War’ on Poaching (The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, July 2016), accessed October 17, 2016, https://www.regjeringen.no/globalassets/departementene/ud/vedlegg/utvikling/global-initiative—-tipping-point-part1—-july-2016.pdf.
29 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, What is CITES? accessed September 8, 2016, https://cites.org/eng/disc/what.php.
30 For more information on the Endangered Species Act, see US Department of the Interior, US Fish and Wildlife Service, ESA Basics: 40 Years of Conserving Endangered Species, January 2013, accessed September 8, 2016, https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/ESA_basics.pdf.
31 US Department of the Interior, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement, Operation Crash, June 22, 2016, accessed September 12, 2016, https://www.fws.gov/le/pdf/Operation-Crash-Fact-Sheet.pdf.
32 Katarzyna Nowak, “Legalizing Rhino Horn Trade Won’t Save Species, Ecologist Argues,” National Geographic, January 8, 2015, accessed September 12, 2016, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/01/150106-rhino-poaching-south-africa-animals-conservation/.
33 US Department of the Interior, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement, Facts About Rhino Horn, accessed September 12, 2016, https://www.fws.gov/le/pdf/rhino-horn-factsheet.pdf.
34 What is CITES?