Photograph by Brent Stirton, Reportage for National Geographic
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About 33,000 African elephants are slaughtered each year for their tusks. On Wednesday, prosecutors announced  that an American auctioneer pleaded guilty to selling illicit ivory and will be sentenced in June.

Photograph by Brent Stirton, Reportage for National Geographic

Prominent Auctioneer Lied About Selling Wildlife Products

In this week’s crime blotter, getting to the bottom of a smuggling network involving ivory, rhino horn, and fake customs reports.

A prominent Beverly Hills auction house executive—whose clients include actor Nicholas Cage—pleaded guilty to smuggling wildlife products worth one million dollars and covering up the illegal sales, federal prosecutors revealed earlier this week.

According to prosecutors, Joseph Chait, a senior auction administrator at I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers, sold items made from rhino horn, elephant ivory, and coral but stated on customs forms that they were made from either bone, wood, or plastic.

In one instance, Chait sold a rhino horn carving for $230,000. On an invoice he fabricated, he wrote that the item cost $108 and was made of plastic. He also received wildlife products that were shipped into the U.S. without declaring them.

Trade in horn and ivory is fueling the decimation of elephant and rhino populations in Africa. It’s illegal in the U.S. to buy and sell ivory products unless the seller can prove that the item is a genuine antique. That means that it was either already in the country before 1990, when an international ban on the ivory trade took effect, or has a certificate verifying that it was taken from the wild before 1976.

Chait faces up to 10 years in prison for the scam.

Some other wildlife crime busts and convictions around the world this past week:

ILLEGAL LOGGER ON THE RUN: Labora Sitorus, an Indonesian former police officer convicted for illegal logging in 2014, turned himself in after fleeing from the cops, reports Mongabay. He had slipped away while being transferred to the Cipinang Prison, in Jakarta. “As a key timber smuggling kingpin, Sitorus controlled the merbau trade in West Papua, Indonesia’s last significant forested region,” wrote the Environmental Investigations Agency in an announcement in 2013. Indonesia bans the export of Merbau logs, a valuable hardwood.

FISHY CONSPIRACY: The owner of Hawaiian Accessories, Inc., a Hawaii jewelry and gift retail business, pleaded guilty to conspiracy involving wildlife, according to Hawaii News Now. He bought raw walrus tusks and whale teeth from an undercover agent in Alaska and shipped them to the Philippines, where they were carved into fishhooks. The hooks were then sent back to Hawaii and passed off as the work of local artisans.

EELS AND SHARKS: Customs officers seized more than 220 pounds of endangered species from two women at Hong Kong International Airport, reports the South China Morning Post. The women, who had come from Spain via Istanbul, Turkey, had live European eels and the dried fins of smooth hammerhead sharks stuffed in their luggage.

SKIN STORY: Officials from Madurai, a city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, arrested four people for allegedly possessing a leopard skin, according to The Hindu. District Forest Officer J.R. Samartha said that the men were providing information on their involvement with a network of poachers.

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to