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Federal Rhino Raiders Crack Down on Smugglers

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White rhinos in South Africa are critically endangered. White rhinos in South Africa are critically endangered. Flickr user ben_lei

Of the five species of rhinoceros, three are critically endangered due to habitat loss and, mostly, poaching. The rhino's horn -- made of keratin, the same substance making up fingernails, hooves and hair -- is used in Eastern medicine to cure any number of ailments, from cancer to bunions. There is no scientific evidence that rhino horn is effective as a cure.

This week, federal agents raided homes and businesses to track down and investigate smugglers and sellers of the illegal horn. The Fish and Wildlife Service said it has arrested three major alleged smugglers in Southern California. The service seized more than $1 million in cash, $1 million in gold bars, diamonds and Rolex watches, along with 20 rhino horns.

The raids are the culmination of Operation Crash, named after the term for a group of rhinos. The 18-month investigation is in partial reaction to a surging demand for rhino horn in Vietnam and China. In England, attempted thefts of rhino specimens from museums have been on the rise. According to reports, one kilogram is worth $65,000, more than precious metals.

The announcement coincidentally, comes the day after an NBC report Wednesday on rhino poaching in South Africa:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the nation has been a focal point, because it allows the export of horns as hunting trophies. Nearly 450 rhinos were killed in South Africa in 2011, a huge increase from the 13 reported killed in 2007. South Africa held public hearings on the issue in January.

While the Fish and Wildlife Service's jurisdiction does not extend to Africa, the organization helps by using the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act, which make interstate commerce and international trade illegal. With the arrests this week, the service has "dealt a serious blow to rhino horn smuggling both in the U.S. and globally," director Dan Ashe said.

Prior to joining Government Executive’s staff, Ross Gianfortune worked at The Washington Post, The Gazette Newspapers, WXRT Radio and The Columbia Missourian. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from University of Missouri and a master's in communications from the American University.

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