Iowa taxidermist charged with trafficking endangered rhino horns


http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/crime-and-courts/2015/05/05/iowa-taxidermist-charged-trafficking-rhino-horns/26925841/

A northern Iowa taxidermist is expected to plead guilty next week to a charge of trafficking horns from a black rhinoceros, a critically endangered African species whose populations have been drastically thinned by illegal poaching.

Federal prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Iowa filed a felony criminal complaint on Monday against James Hess, the owner of Maquoketa-based Wildlife Pride Taxidermy and Decor.

Hess is charged with a single count of violating the Lacey Act, a 1990 federal law that criminalizes interstate or foreign sales of animals protected under the Endangered Species Act. Reached by phone, Hess called the case against him a “mess.”

The criminal complaint is scant on details, but alleges Hess participated in the transport and sale of black rhinoceros horns that exceeded a market value of $350. The World Wildlife Fund reports that one kilogram of rhino horn can sell for as much as $60,000.

Hess said the taxidermied black rhino head at issue was legally harvested in 1958 and was mounted on a wall for decades before the transaction he was involved with took place. Hess has owned his taxidermy business for about 20 years, and is a hunter and wildlife advocate, he said.

“It’s kind of a joke to be honest,” he said. “That’s what I consider it. Welcome to the federal government.”

Currently, the federal government can issue up to 10 permits yearly for Americans to import trophy black rhinos killed on sport hunts in Namibia and South Africa that further conservation efforts promoted by both African governments. One permit was issued in 2013 and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced earlier this year it would give out two more.

In Namibia, wild black rhinos have been given ear notches that help the government determine which animals to selectively cull from a herd. But transporting or selling rhino horns or parts without authorization violates the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973, according to the complaint against Hess.

Additional details about Hess’ alleged violation will come to light at a scheduled May 13 plea hearing at the federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Young. The charge comes with a maximum prison sentence of five years and a $250,000 fine.

“It’s kind of an unusual case for Iowa,” Young said.

Africa’s black rhino population plummeted by 96 percent between 1972 and 1990, largely due to the black market horn trade, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The WWF estimates the species’ population to currently be about 4,848 spread through deserts and grasslands in Namibia and eastern Africa.

Selective legal hunting of the rhinos has been found to reduce fighting between males and infant mortality, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. But black rhino horns are sold illegally for use in Asian medicine, fueled by a belief that the horns can cure cancer, fevers and gout.

Two black rhinos currently live in Iowa at Des Moines’ Blank Park Zoo. A male, Kiano, and a female, Ayana, came to Des Moines in December 2012 ahead of the opening of the zoo’s new Africa exhibit.

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