The ‘godfather’ and an SA man caught in major rhino horn busts…

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The two suspects appeared in court last week – one in the United States, the other in Singapore. They face several charges related to illegal transnational trade in threatened or endangered wildlife.

Teo Boon Ching, as captured in an undercover screenshot recording. (Photo: Environmental Investigation Agency, UK)

Teo Boon Ching, a 57-year-old businessman known as “The Godfather”, appeared before Federal Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein in New York on October 7, accused of participating in a conspiracy to make trafficking over 70 kg of rhino horn worth over $725,000 (over R13 million).

Ching, a Malaysian citizen, was arrested in Thailand in June at the request of the United States following a lengthy sting operation by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other law enforcement agencies. laws.

The second suspect, a 32-year-old South African national, Sthembiso Joel Gumede, appeared in a Singapore court on October 6 after being arrested at Changi Airport during an apparent attempt to smuggle rhino horn from Johannesburg in Laos. Airport sniffer dogs led their handlers to two bags containing 34kg of rhino horn from a flight from Johannesburg.

rhino horns
Some of the horns found in Sthembiso Joel Gumede’s luggage in Singapore. (Photo: Singapore National Parks Board)
rhino horns
Rhino horns seized in Singapore. (Photo: Singapore National Parks Board)

According to a report in Singapore todayGumede said he did not have a lawyer, but was “pleading innocent” and was unsure if he could lift bail.

Extradition to the United States

In a press release issued by the US Department of Justice, the US Attorney’s Office and the US Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed that Ching was brought to New York following an extradition request from the royal government. Thai and police.

According to a indictment unsealed in Manhattan In federal court on Friday, Ching got off the hook largely because of secret recordings of conversations he had with secret sources while negotiating the sale of multiple horns. Later tests by forensic experts revealed that two horns were from black rhinos and another 10 from white rhinos, both species native to Africa.

According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which specializes in covert investigations into environmental crimes around the world, Ching was arrested in Thailand in 2015 for possession of 135 kg of African elephant ivory.

“Despite his arrest, he escaped prosecution and continues his wildlife smuggling exploits,” the EIA said in a statement earlier this year, adding that he was involved in another seizure of rhino horns. in August 2018.

In a report titled Expose HydraEIA investigators documented Ching’s alleged role as a specialized transporter assisting Vietnamese and Chinese syndicates in wildlife trafficking between Africa and Asia.

US Wildlife Trafficking Laws

This time, however, Ching will have to contend with US law enforcement and a battery of laws designed specifically to tackle international wildlife crime.

This could include the Lacey Act which prohibits international and domestic wildlife trafficking – including wildlife, fish and plants that have been caught in violation of other federal, state or even foreign laws.

The Endangered Species Act and its regulations also protect fish, wildlife and plants that are, or may become, endangered due to demand in international markets, while the Rhino Conservation Act and tigers makes it a crime for anyone to knowingly sell, import or export substances. from any species of rhinoceros.

The US Department of Justice has yet to respond to our questions about whether Ching is being held or released on bail, but a report published in The diplomat The magazine suggests that Ching is in custody and also faces sanctions aimed at denying him access to any property or financial assets held in the United States.

According to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office on October 7, Ching was charged with conspiracy to traffic more than 70 kg of rhino horn and also launder the proceeds of his illegal horn sales. The US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control had also sanctioned Ching and its associated business entities.

“Transnational Criminal Enterprise”

US Attorney Damian Williams said: “Teo Boon Ching is accused of being the leader of a transnational criminal enterprise trafficking in rhino horns, enriching poachers responsible for the senseless illegal killing of many endangered rhinos and promoting the market for these illicit products.

“Through the tireless efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this defendant has been arrested and brought to the United States to answer for his alleged crimes.”

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Edward J Grace, Deputy Director of the Office of Law Enforcement of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, said: “This extradition is a major success for wildlife and people… Wildlife traffickers run criminal enterprises complex international affairs that require a multinational law enforcement effort to investigate, arrest and prosecute them for their crimes”.

The indictment describes Ching as the leader of an Asia-based transnational criminal enterprise with significant operations in Malaysia and Thailand that engaged in large-scale international trafficking and smuggling of rhino horn.

“Ching served as a specialist smuggler, transporting horns from rhino poaching operations primarily in Africa to prospective customers, primarily in Asia.”

undercover operation

He said Ching met with a confidential source to negotiate the sale of rhino horns in July 2019. He told a confidential source (CS-1) that he served as a “middleman” – one who acquires rhino horns. rhinos poached by co-conspirators in Africa and ships them to customers around the world for a fee per kilogram.

In August 2019, CS-1, under the direction of law enforcement, purchased 12 rhino horns from Ching with money he believed to be proceeds from other illegal wildlife trades and was found to bank accounts in New York.

ching rhinoceros horns
Some of the horns were reportedly offered for sale by Teo Boon Ching. (Photo: US Department of Justice)

Under Ching’s direction, law enforcement deposited the purported proceeds into numerous Chinese bank accounts in an underground banking facility in Thailand to conceal the origins, source and purposes of the monetary transactions.

It is alleged that Ching then arranged for his co-conspirators to deliver 12 horns to undercover law enforcement personnel in Bangkok, Thailand.

The prosecution of this case is being handled by the Complex Fraud and Cybercrime Unit.

Registered activities

Ching’s meetings, voice calls, and messages sent via an email app were all logged, including the account numbers of five different bank accounts at Chinese banks where CS-1 was instructed to deposit money. money to pay for the horns.

With respect to traffic violations of various U.S. codes, a request would be made for the forfeiture of “all wildlife imported, exported, transported, sold, received, acquired, and purchased”, as well as “all vessels, vehicles, aircraft and other equipment used to aid in the import, export, transport, sale, receipt, acquisition and purchase of such wildlife”.

Ching should also confiscate to the United States “all property, real and personal, involved in said offense, or any property that can be connected with such property, including, but not limited to, an amount in United States currency representing the amount property involved in the said offence”. ”. DM/OBP

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