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To the chagrin of New York antiques dealers, lawmakers in Albany have voted to outlaw the sale of virtually all items containing more than small amounts of elephant ivory, mammoth ivory or rhinoceros horn. The legislation, which is backed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, will essentially eliminate New York’s central role in a well-established, nationwide trade with an estimated annual value of $500 million.

Lawmakers say the prohibitions are needed to curtail the slaughter of endangered African elephants and rhinos, which they say is fueled by a global black market in poached ivory, some of which has turned up in New York.

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Qiang Wang aka Jeffrey Wang pleaded guilty to smuggling artifacts made from rhinoceros horns from the United States to China. Wang, a 34-year-old antiques dealer based in New York City, was arrested in February 2013 as part of Operation Crash, a nationwide, multiagency crackdown on the illegal rhinoceros trade.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara says Wang pleaded guilty to wildlife smuggling conspiracy on Wednesday, August 7, 2013 in New York. Bharara added that Wang used fake U.S. Customs documents to smuggle packages containing libation cups carved from rhinoceros horns into Hong Kong and China. Wang will be sentenced on October 25, 2013 and could spend up to five years in prison.

Over 90% of the wild rhinoceros population has been slaughtered illegally since the 1970s, mainly because of the price their horns can bring. U.S. and international laws currently protect endangered rhinos.

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The Ipswich Museum contains many alluring and potentially theft-worthy items, including a spectacular 2,000-year-old gold-leaf Egyptian death mask on loan from the British Museum and a rare Hawaiian cape featuring feathers from the extinct o’o bird. But when two thieves forced their way in after midnight on July 28, they were seeking something else entirely.

Never mind that their target, a large rhinoceros horn, was still attached to its owner, which had been standing blamelessly in the museum since 1907.

“They just snapped it off,” said Bryony Rudkin, the Ipswich Borough Council member in charge of culture. Grabbing a pair of additional horns (and the rhino skull they belonged to) from a shelf nearby, the thieves disappeared as quickly as they had come. “It was like ‘The Pink Panther,’ ” Ms. Rudkin said. “In and out.”

It might have seemed like a bizarre, anomalous incident, the act of someone with a perverse rhino fetish. But similar thefts, as many as 30 so far this year, have been reported in museums, galleries, antiques dealerships, auction houses and homes across Europe as criminals try to feed a growing demand in China and other Asian countries, where medicine made from ground rhino horns is believed to act as an aphrodisiac and to cure cancer and other diseases.

“I was quite surprised, I must admit,” said Ian Lawson, a detective in the art and antiques unit at the Metropolitan Police Service in London, describing his first realization that rhino-horn theft had become a serious law-enforcement issue. “It’s taken a bit of time for everyone to wake up to the fact that this is a cross-Europe offense, and that they will attack anywhere that has a rhino horn.”

Mr. Lawson said that galleries and museums should be alert to what he called “hostile reconnaissance” by would-be thieves. They were also urged to keep images of their rhinos off their Web sites, to lock the horns away, or, as the Natural History Museum in London has done, to replace them with fake horns.

While horns have sold recently for upward of $200,000, the powder, Mr. Lawson said, is reported to fetch £60,000 a kilo (about $45,000 a pound) on the black market — more than gold, heroin or cocaine.

Stricter laws governing the sale of used rhino horns, the kind found mounted on trophies or on rhinos that were long ago killed by big-game hunters and stuffed by taxidermists, have also played a part. This year Britain and other European countries tightened their regulations, making it virtually impossible to export most rhino horns from the European Union legally, thus increasing the value of purloined ones.

That crackdown has inadvertently threatened the efforts of conservation groups to preserve wild rhinoceroses in Africa, as thieves — their supply curtailed — have turned to poachers who hack off horns from live animals, often leaving the rhinos to bleed to death, said Cathy Dean, director of Save the Rhino, an advocacy group in Britain. So far this year there have been 260 rhino deaths from poaching in South Africa alone, compared with a total last year of 333, she added. The problem was a major focus of the recent meeting in Geneva of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, whose members agreed to share information and coordinate antipoaching efforts.

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