Feds at Work: Led “Operation Crash” targeted those who smuggle, sell and trade elephant ivory and rhino horns

National investigation led to arrest and prosecution of numerous profiteers

Poachers in Africa have been slaughtering rhinos and elephants by the thousands, teaming up with organized international cartels and criminals and to profit from the illegal trade of horns and tusks from these endangered animals.

As part of a broad U.S. strategy to combat this pernicious wildlife trafficking, Edward Grace of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service led a nationwide law enforcement investigation known as Operation Crash. It targeted those who smuggle, sell and trade the lucrative rhino horns and elephant ivory.

Edward Grace (Photo by Aaron Clamage)

The work of Grace and his team, in collaboration with law enforcement authorities nationwide, led to 41 arrests, 30 convictions and the seizure of contraband with a street value in excess of $75 million. Defendants have been charged with crimes against wildlife, money laundering, tax evasion, falsifying documents, mail fraud and bribery.

“Wildlife trafficking is one of the most horrific and immediate threats to global biodiversity, and has the very real possibility of wiping some of the world’s most stunning and beloved creatures, such as rhinos and elephants, from the face of the Earth forever,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Daniel Ashe.

“This is a global problem, but America plays a significant role since much of the illegal trade occurs within the United States, transits across our borders or involves American citizens,” he added.

Grace’s leadership has had significant results, Ashe said, is “putting key figures in the shadowy world of rhino horn smuggling and black market trading behind bars and creating a real deterrent for those who might otherwise see these activities as low risk.”

Grace secured funding for the operation several years ago, recognizing the growing threat and the involvement of ruthless organized criminal elements. He put together a team of 11 agents, developed a plan, and launched and supervised multiple investigations.

He worked with wildlife inspectors at ports of entry and federal authorities nationwide, and consulted with intelligence analysts and forensic scientists.

The investigations have “reverberated globally,” sending the message that there will be legal consequences for this activity, said Marshall Jones, a senior advisor at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

“For a long time, wildlife crime wasn’t treated as a serious crime even though it had become a lucrative business tied to organized crime. We are now bringing these traffickers to justice.” ~ Edward Grace, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In 2013, President Obama created the Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, bringing together 17 federal departments and agencies to strengthen enforcement, reduce demand for protected wildlife body parts and improve international cooperation. Operation Crash has played a crucial enforcement role.

In September, Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping reached an agreement to work together to enact “nearly complete bans on the import and export of ivory,” Jones said. China, the world’s largest consumer of ivory, “needed to see we are willing to take strong law enforcement action, and Ed Grace’s investigations have helped put pressure on them.”

Grace “inspired and led this operation, and he has been pivotal to this effort,” Jones said.

In one investigation, Grace and his team uncovered an international smuggling network that was selling rhino horns at an auction house in Beverly Hills, California. They documented the sale and smuggling of 100 rhino horns. The senior auction administrator pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to smuggle wildlife products valued at more than $1 million.

In another, a Chinese antiques dealer was arrested in Miami and later convicted and sentenced to 70 months in jail for smuggling 30 rhino horns and many ivory objects into China from the U.S. The estimated value of the goods was $4.5 million.

“For a long time, wildlife crime wasn’t treated as a serious crime even though it had become a lucrative business tied to organized crime,” Grace said. “We are now bringing these traffickers to justice.”

“It’s an honor to do this work that I’m passionate about and I believe it’s making a difference,” he said. “If 20 years from now these species are surviving, I’ll know that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped make that happen.”

Edward Grace and the Operation Crash Team are finalists for a 2016 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, or Sammies. Each year, the Partnership for Public Service honors federal employees whose remarkable accomplishments make our government and our nation stronger. For the second time, we will also present the annual “People’s Choice” award. Please vote for the person or team you find most inspiring. (Voting closes at 11:59 p.m. EST on September 9, 2016.)