Poaching has taken its toll on the black rhinoceros in recent years, with populations dwindling and pushing the species to the brink of extinction. Luckily, federal agents are doing their part to end the black market sale of the rhino's parts.
According to The (Springfield, Ill.) State Journal-Register, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents busted a smuggling ring, which reportedly sold rhino horns for up to $25,000 per pound to Asia, where the rhino's horn is believed to have healing properties.
Called "Operation Crash" -- named after a rhino herd, or "crash" -- the effort outed smugglers across the country and reportedly confiscated millions of dollars worth of cash, gold, diamonds and even Rolex watches.
"We targeted a species that is in extreme peril, really on the brink of extinction," said Tim Santel, resident agent in charge with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in Springfield. "We took out a full-court press to save this magnificent animal."
Seven people were arrested within a week, including one suspect who was stopped in a California airport carrying $337,000 in cash. Another suspect, a New York antiques expert named David Hausman, allegedly bought a rhino mount from an undercover officer on Feb. 18 at a truck stop near Peoria, Ill. He was later observed at a motel in Chicago trying to pry the horn off the mount.
The paper reported that search warrants were executed in at least five states by agents from the Fish and Wildlife Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security. Officials said the reason for the effort is the rise in poaching -- in 2011, 448 rhinos were killed in South Africa, a record high.
The black rhinoceros is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with an estimated population fewer than 5,000.
Big game hunters were allowed to take rhinos until the 1970s. White rhinoceros populations have risen through the last century, bringing the species back from the brink of extinction. Now listed as "near threatened," white rhinos are still hunted and trophies may be legally brought back to the United States, but laws forbid the sale of the rhino's parts, officials said, adding that selling parts of the animal only drives up the demand for its parts.
In Asia, the rhino's horn is believed to cure a number of ailments, including cancer, and is also used to make dagger handles and ceremonial cups.