NEWARK, New Jersey — An antiques dealer from China has been sentenced to nearly six years in U.S. federal prison after admitting he was the mastermind of an international smuggling ring that specialized in rhinoceros horns and elephant ivory.
Speaking through an interpreter, Zhifei Li expressed remorse for his actions and asked to be reunited with his sick 4-year-old daughter in China before his sentencing Tuesday in U.S. District court in Newark.
The 30-year-old pleaded guilty in December to 11 counts, including conspiracy, smuggling, illegal wildlife trafficking and making fake documents.
The U.S. attorney's office says Li, operating through his business Overseas Treasure Finding, paid three antiques dealers in the United States to help him smuggle the items to China. Prosecutors say the 30 smuggled rhino horns plus other objects made from the horns and from elephant ivory were worth about $4.5 million.
The horns were allegedly shipped to Hong Kong and then mainland China wrapped in duct tape and hidden in porcelain vases. All species of the rhinoceros are protected under U.S. and international law, and international trade in rhino horns and elephant ivory has been regulated since the mid-1970s.
U.S. Magistrate Esther Salas ordered Li to serve his sentence of five years and 10 months in the U.S. before he faces deportation to his native Shandong Province. He was also ordered to forfeit $3.5 million in proceeds from his admitted criminal activity.
Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney for the district of New Jersey, praised what he said was one of the longest sentences ever imposed in the U.S. for a wildlife smuggling offense.
"The multibillion-dollar illegal wildlife market is supplied by animal poaching of unthinkable brutality and fed by those willing to profit from such cruelty," Fishman said in a statement.
Salas said she hoped the sentencing would send a strong message to would-be poachers and smugglers in order to "prevent the innocent slaughter of these magnificent creatures."
Li was arrested as part of "Operation Crash," a nationwide effort led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Justice Department to prosecute those involved in the black market trade of rhinoceros horns and other protected species.