An undercover investigation into the illegal trade in rhino horn has identified an unlikely source; a chain of nail salons on UK high streets.
The chain, “Nails, Pedicures and You”, is believed to have been involved in the trade for over two years and to have generated over $1 million in revenue.
Undercover law enforcement officers working to prevent the illegal trade in wildlife in Vietnam became aware of regular shipments of rhino horn from the UK 6 months ago and contacted the Metropolitan Police’s Illegal Wildlife Trade team. The team tracked down the nail bar and launched a surveillance operation.
It took them several months to gather enough evidence to secure a warrant for the arrest of the owners of the salon and they launched a sting operation two weeks ago, making multiple arrests and seizing 100 hundred horns from a warehouse used by the nail salon.
However, the story does not end there. While police forensic teams were gathering evidence from the warehouse, they found hundreds of bags of clipped finger- and toe-nails and a chemical lab.
They thought the lab was for making illegal narcotics, but on closer inspection they found it was being used to compress the nail clippings together into fake rhino horns.
Upon questioning those arrested in the sting, police were told that one of the workers at the nail salon had read an article that said rhino horn was made of keratin, the same material that human nails are made of, and could sell for $60,000 per kilogram.
That individual had started taking nails home to try to make them into horns and had been caught by the boss of one of the chains, who demanded an explanation. Rather than fire the worker, the boss talked to the CEO of the company and suggested it could be a great way to make money, and the CEO had agreed.
It took 6 months of trial and error, but they found a way to make convincing fakes and the CEO had found a dealer, while visiting Vietnam for a family wedding, who agreed to buy the horns from them for $10,000 each.
Since then they had transported and sold more than 500 ‘horns’ and were just about to send another shipment when the police sting took place.
Inspector Trevor Smith of the Met Police’s IWT team commented, “We’re not really sure what to do with them, whether to arrest or reward them, it’s a bit of dilemma. On the one hand they are committing fraud, but on the other they may be saving rhinos from being killed by supplying these fake horns.”
The police kept their findings secret for two weeks while deciding the best course of action, having considered allowing the firm to continue selling their fake horns as a way to protecting rhinos.
“We were going to continue running an undercover operation, but we thought sunlight was the best disinfectant,” continued Inspector Smith, “so we’re now working with Vietnamese news agencies and conservation NGOs to advertise this sting. If people realise they paid $60,000 for some disgusting nail-clippings, it should make them think twice before buying horn again.”