LOS ANGELES — A father and son from Orange County, whom federal prosecutors say were "at the apex of the rhinoceros horn smuggling pyramid within the United States," were each sentenced Wednesday to multi-year federal prison terms for their role in the scheme.
Vinh Chuong "Jimmy" Kha, 49, of Garden Grove, was sentenced to 42 months in federal prison for overseeing a U.S.-based operation that prosecutors argued played a direct role in a huge increase in rhinoceros poaching in Africa over the past several years. Felix Kha, 27, his son, also of Garden Grove, received a 46-month prison term for working alongside his father in a scheme that generated millions of dollars in profits, as well as money to purchase more contraband rhinoceros horns and pay bribes to customs officials in at least one other nation.
The Khas both pleaded guilty last year to five felony counts – conspiracy, smuggling, wildlife trafficking in violation of the Lacey Act, money laundering and tax evasion. The Khas were among 14 individuals charged with federal crimes as a result of "Operation Crash," an ongoing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)-led investigation named for the word used to describe a herd of rhinoceros. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI); the U.S. Postal Inspection Service; IRS – Criminal Investigation; the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California; and the Department of Justice's Environmental Crimes Section also played a prominent role in the case.
Over the course of about two years – from January 2010 through February 2012 – the Khas conspired with individuals throughout the U.S. to purchase white and black rhinoceros horns with the full knowledge that these animals were protected by federal law as endangered and threatened species. The horns acquired by the Khas during the course of the conspiracy had a market value of up to $2.5 million.
In their plea agreements, both defendants admitted they purchased the horns for export overseas to be sold and made into libation cups or used for traditional medicine. They further admitted they made at least one illegal payment to Vietnamese customs officials to ensure clearance of horn shipments to that country, and evaded income taxes owed in 2009 and 2010.
"Calling the matter a "serious crime against the environment and wildlife," U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder said the Khas engaged in "conduct not acceptable by anyone in the world. There are portions of Africa where the rhino is gone, and Lord knows if they will ever come back."
"The Khas' smuggling operation fueled international demand and played a significant role in driving the price of rhino horn to nearly $25,000 per pound," said U.S. Attorney André Birotte Jr. "It was that rising value of rhino horn that encouraged ruthless poachers to scour the South African wilderness in search of profits. The Khas played a role in pushing species like the African black rhino to the brink of extinction, which is why we aggressively prosecuted this case and sought lengthy prison terms."
Despite national and international protection efforts, the demand for rhino horn and black market prices have skyrocketed due to the value some cultures place on the horns for ornamental carvings, good luck charms or alleged medicinal purposes. At the peak of the Khas' wildlife trafficking conspiracy in 2011, 448 wild rhinos were slaughtered for their horns in South Africa alone. Between 2007 and the end of 2011, the poaching of wild South African rhinos increased more than 3,000 percent.
"On average, a rhino is slaughtered in Africa every 11 hours to feed the black market for their horns," said FWS Director Dan Ashe. "Criminals in this country who are cashing in on this illegal trade should know that the United States will hold them accountable for their crimes and do everything possible to protect wild populations of rhinos."
In addition to the prison terms, both Khas, along with the father's company, were ordered to pay a total of $800,000 in restitution to the Multinational Species Conservation Fund, a fund managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to support international efforts to protect and conserve rhinos and other critically endangered species around the world.
A third defendant in the case, Win Lee Corporation, which is owned by Jimmy Kha, was sentenced to five years' probation and ordered to pay a $100,000 fine after it pleaded guilty to charges of smuggling and wildlife trafficking.
In sentencing papers filed in U.S. District Court, prosecutors argued that "although they themselves did not shoot the rhinos, defendants Jimmy and Felix Kha share direct culpability for the recent spike in the price of rhino horn, the increase in Vietnamese and Chinese demand for rhino, and thus the consequent wholesale slaughter of rhinos in the wild in Africa in recent years."