Illegal Rhino Horn Sale in Iowa Illuminates Need for Conservation Efforts

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Blank Park Zoo keeps two black rhinoceroses, one male and one female, with hopes they will breed in a few years (WHO-HD/Reid Chandler)

Blank Park Zoo keeps two black rhinoceroses, one male and one female, with hopes they will mate in a few years (WHO-HD/Reid Chandler)

DES MOINES, Iowa – After an Iowa taxidermist pleaded guilty Wednesday to selling two endangered black rhinoceros horns to an ivory trafficker across the United States, rhinoceros conservationists in Des Moines are speaking out about the importance of educating the public on the endangered species.

The Des Moines Register reports Maquoketa resident James A. Hess profited, by $15,000 to $16,000, from the illegal resale of two horns he bought in Oregon in August 2011 and sent back to Iowa. The horns ultimately wound up in the hands of two California businessmen, who smuggled them into black markets in Vietnam and southeast Asia, and are connected to the sale of about $2.5 million in rhino horns total. Hess faces up to five years in prison for the crime, though his sentencing hearing has not been scheduled.

Wildlife conservationists at the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines say this latest headline in state news reveals the growing problem of rhino poaching across the world – and the United States’ role in the illegal sale of ivory. Considered a critically endangered species, the black rhino population has been whittled down to about 4,848 animals in Namibia and eastern Africa, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Its cousin, the white rhinoceros, is widely accepted as a species that will go extinct – regardless of conservation efforts – within the next few years, due to high levels of poaching, and the sole existence of one male white rhinoceros left on the planet.

“It’s big money, and that keeps the desire to sell rhino horn and elephant tusk on the black market high,” said rhinoceros keeper Lou Keeley at Blank Park Zoo. “But it’s killing off the population, and we wish we could say efforts to curb rhino poaching are helping the situation, but poaching is actually on the rise.”

Federal law bans the interstate sale of rhino horns, but conservationists say the law is broad and contains a lot of loopholes; sale within a state is still allowed. While Hess pleaded guilty to violating federal law (by conducting a sale across state lines), Blank Park Zoo conservation manager Jessie Lowry says the zoo and other groups are working to see a state law passed that would ban the sale of rhino horn. A bill was introduced to state lawmakers this session, but didn’t make it out of an Iowa Senate subcommittee.

“We’re very disappointed our bill died in a subcommittee, but we’re still dedicated to seeing changes made to Iowa’s law,” she said.

States like New York and New Jersey have passed similar laws banning the sale of rhino horn recently, and Lowry hopes to see Iowa join them in the future.

“More than anything we hope this helps illuminate the issue to the public, and show them why they should care about the black rhinoceros population and conservation initiative,” Keeley said.