A US court on Tuesday sentenced a wildlife trade kingpin to 18 months in prison for conspiring to traffick hundreds of kilos of rhino horn.
Teo Boon Ching, a Malaysian citizen nicknamed “the Godfather” by investigators, was part of a conspiracy to smuggle rhino horns to international buyers, including in Manhattan, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney for Southern District of New York.
Ching, who was already under U.S. sanctions, was arrested in Thailand last year and then extradited to the United States, the statement said.
“Wildlife trafficking poses a serious threat,” Damian Williams, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in the release. “This heavy sentence shows the determination of this office to use all the tools at our disposal to ensure the protection of endangered species. »
Rhinos are critically endangered despite persistent efforts to save the species. Their numbers have declined significantly due to hunting and habitat loss, and only thousands remain in the wild in Africa and Asia, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
A lucrative black market is fueled by demand for traditional medicine in Asia, particularly China and Vietnam. Rhino horn is made of keratin – the same material found in human nails – and there is little scientific evidence for its medical effectiveness.
Prosecutors said an undercover operation revealed Ching’s efforts to traffick approximately 219 kilograms (483 pounds) of rhino horns “resulting from the poaching of numerous rhinos” with an estimated value of $2.1 million.
In August 2019, at the direction of law enforcement, a source purchased 12 rhino horns from Ching with money he believed to be the proceeds of another illegal wildlife trade and which was located in bank accounts in New York, officials said.
The horns were delivered in a suitcase to Thailand by people working for the wildlife trafficking organization, officials said.
Ching was arrested in Thailand on June 29, 2022 at the request of US authorities and extradited to the United States on October 7, 2022.
The London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which provided intelligence on Ching to US law enforcement officials, said his imprisonment was a “major blow” to the illegal species trade wild.
“Chinese and Vietnamese organized crime networks have long exploited Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries as transit hubs for smuggling illegal wildlife products from Africa to Asia,” it said. an EIA press release.
“The imprisonment of Teo Boon Ching and the US Treasury Department’s sanctions against him and his alleged trafficking organization are a significant blow to their ability to operate. »
In a statement, Olivia Swaak-Goldman, executive director of the nonprofit Wildlife Justice Commission, said Ching’s conviction “sends a strong message that wildlife crime will no longer be tolerated.”
“His arrest and imprisonment have significantly disrupted the illegal wildlife trade,” she said.