National Geographic News
Photo of a rhino shot by poachers.

Game scouts found this black rhino bull wandering Zimbabwe's Savé Valley Conservancy after poachers shot it several times and hacked off both its horns. Veterinarians had to euthanize the animal.

Photograph by Brent Stirton, National Geographic

Bryan Christy

for National Geographic

Published April 17, 2014

"This is Lu," the email began. "I got the giraffe from you."

That email, say U.S. Justice Department officials, written to a confidential informant regarding a taxidermied giraffe, would initiate an effort earlier this year by Lumsden W. Quan (aka "Lu"), 46, of San Francisco and his boss, Edward N. Levine, 63, of Mill Valley, California, to sell two horns of the endangered black rhinoceros to a federal agent for $55,000. The attempted sale took place at a hotel in Las Vegas on March 19, 2014. Both men were arrested.

This indictment is the latest in a series of cases by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Justice as part of Operation Crash, a massive, nationwide criminal investigation into U.S. involvement in the international black market for rhino horn. ("Crash" is another word for a herd of rhinoceroses).

All rhinoceros species across Africa and Asia are under siege by poachers. (Read "Rhino Wars" in National Geographic magazine.) They supply the largely Vietnamese and Chinese demand for rhino horn powder as a traditional medicine and for decorative carved horns and $100,000 libation cups.

To date Operation Crash has resulted in 17 arrests and nine convictions, for, among others, a member of an Irish crime gang (the Rathkeale Rovers), New York and Chinese antiques dealers, and Chinese nationals, whose buyers have been in Hong Kong, China, and Vietnam. In many cases, traffickers are removing horns of taxidermy specimens, which is how talk about a mounted giraffe led to rhino horn.

"The service has made stopping the illegal trafficking in rhino horn a priority and directed our Special Investigations Unit, our elite complex investigation unit, to work this issue," says Edward Grace, U.S. Fish and Wildlife's deputy assistant director for law enforcement.

"Ten years ago agents involved in undercover investigations could buy an entire horn for $7,000. Now agents are spending $25,000 a pound to buy illegal horns," he points out.

According to officials, since the launch of Operation Crash, investigators have documented the illegal sale and smuggling of hundreds of illegal rhino horns in the United States, worth a conservative estimate in excess of $50 million dollars on the street.

But the arrest of Levine exposes another element of big-time wildlife trafficking—narcotics.

Picture of a box of carved ivory tusks.
Boxes of figurines carved from ivory sit alongside elephant tusks in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's repository near Denver, Colorado, where items are stored after being seized as a result of the illegal wildlife trade in endangered species.
Photograph by Kate Brooks, Redux

The Cartel Connection

In 1989 Levine was indicted in Florida along with Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, the Ochoa brothers, and nearly two dozen others on charges arising from their involvement in Colombia's infamous Medellín cocaine cartel.

The connection between the wildlife trade and illegal drugs is longstanding. U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents have found illegal drugs hidden inside shipments of live wildlife. In the 1990s, South American drug traffickers famously stuffed cocaine-filled condoms into boa constrictors bound for the pet trade in Miami. All of the snakes in that shipment arrived dead, which is likely how they'd been shipped, since stuffing a dead snake is easier than stuffing a live one.

According to court records, in 1978 Levine obtained cocaine from Medellín-cartel conspirator Carlos Lehder and flew to California, where it was distributed. Levine also rented several safe-deposit boxes under the name "Michael Stark," from which authorities seized roughly six million dollars.

After being indicted in 1989 on federal drug trafficking charges, Levine fled. He lived under the alias "Joel Watnick" until February 1995, when he was arrested outside his home in Oregon and later pleaded guilty to a distribution charge. He served two years, eight months and was released November 1997.

Authorities have long compared the size of the illegal wildlife trade to the trade in illegal narcotics and arms (usually placing it third). Now they appear to have a link.

"Operation Crash has documented how individuals involved in other nonwildlife-related crimes have branched out into wildlife crimes," says U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Grace. "This is a very disturbing trend, because wildlife crimes have now changed from a crime of opportunity to one of organized crime."

"Operation Crash has led to the arrest and conviction of an illegal firearms dealer," he says, "and now the arrest of a convicted felon who helped distribute drugs for a Colombian drug cartel."

Follow Bryan Christy on Twitter: @bryanchristy or visit www.bryanchristy.com

58 comments
Jack Glasson
Jack Glasson

This man is disgusting, how would he like it if someone pulled half his face off, honestly what has this world come to.

S. Watkins
S. Watkins

Why euthanize ? Dress the wounds.. It wouldn't heal ?


kenia cabrera
kenia cabrera

why can"t humans  help  the wildlife, and the environment ? They only care about making profit out of it.... they have no emotional appeal whatsoever. 

Elizabeth Webster
Elizabeth Webster

Does anyone know what's being done to create legitimate sources of income for people in these countries plagued with poaching?  And what about educating the public of the value of their natural resources (outside of killing and maiming animals of course).

The Savannah Africa Volunteer
The Savannah Africa Volunteer

I can not believe people can do this. South Africa has been trying so many different ways to support Rhino horn anti-poaching but still you hear of Rhinos dying each day. Soon we will not have Rhinos for our future generation. That is a sad reality but the truth. Leave the Rhinos alone. The Savannah Africa Volunteer team will do what it takes to save our Rhinos in South Africa. 

Aleasha Casaretto
Aleasha Casaretto

I'm sorry for what my species has done to yours. Humans are evil, soulless creatures. On behalf of all humans, I appologize. But, it won't stop the killing. It won't stop the greed. It will never stop. I'm sorry. I cry for you. I want so badly to stop this mass murdering of your beautiful species. I don't know when or if my species will come to the realization that your body is not ours to take and use for selfish purposes. If that day ever comes, it will probably be to late. But, on behalf of myself, and every other human that cares, I appologize.

K. Jeffries
K. Jeffries

Where does the idea originate of rhino horn powder as a "traditional" Chinese medicine? To my knowledge there have never been rhinos living in China so what is so traditional to them? Using expressions like this generate sympathy towards the criminals.

Ibel Garcia
Ibel Garcia

Sad to see people get pleasure from doing things like this. How can it be that easy for them, dam I feel bad to just yell at my dog. Animals don't have the fault that humanity has come down to this horrible reality.

Justin L.
Justin L.

The look on the rhino's face is especially moving.  I can't imagine what the poor creature went through and the abhor the senseless nature of this crime.  The ignorance that persists with these bogus medicinal concoctions in the asian countries needs to stop.

Mwati T
Mwati T

Sad and disappointing.

Wing  Kong
Wing Kong

These animals belong to nobody but its mother and father. 

STOP STEALING, KILLING & VIOLATING.

gisela christabel
gisela christabel

This is awful. they're out of their mind. the world are screaming for the numbers of rhinos nowadays..

amanda tenise bentley
amanda tenise bentley

This is a case where I hope karma gives more than was taken...truly disgusting.

Shirley Morneau
Shirley Morneau

That makes me sick.  How can they do that to that poor animal?  I hope God or man sorely punishes these awful detestable inhuman disgusting poachers.  There's no punishment great enough for this sick act.

D Ram
D Ram

Humans need to go away somewhere. We should kill off 29/30 the population and stop using medicine. 


Thenthe world would be how it was meant to be

Ladylansing Lincoln
Ladylansing Lincoln

Too bad there isn't Capital Punishment for taking any kind of life human or animal a life for a life...bet it would give these EVIL people something to think about other then money & greed.

Jessica B.
Jessica B.

This is SO disturbing. The people doing this should suffer punishment as these animals do. This needs to be stopped. 

a. aveesha harshadie
a. aveesha harshadie

It's so horrible all the beings have an equal right to live.Love all the animals and hate to see them suffering.Its so sad an ashamed  to think that people don't know the value of lives. 

Hoorya Khan
Hoorya Khan

This makes me very sad :( I wish humans understood that earth isn't only for human life, but for all lives, including animals and plants.  

Stu Adam
Stu Adam

Its so sad to see these majestic animals slaughted .. even sadder to see a full grown male with its horns cut of bullets holes in it and it still standing and alive>> omg im so lost for words :((

Darren Shao
Darren Shao

This is really horrifying, sorry for the innocent rhino.

Rocky Chaudhry
Rocky Chaudhry

Animal everyone wants to save had to die for what ?few bucks .what a shame on us .we humans sure know how to destroy nature .

Nathaniel Gillen
Nathaniel Gillen

This is horrible and inhumane. Those men need the exact same treatment.Lets see how they would like to lose a limb or two.

Mike Tyburski
Mike Tyburski

Unreal what some people do for money, not a care in the world for anything but themselves and their profits!

. Zhao
. Zhao

Sh.......t~ I have been to Africa once only. And I am so lucky to see Rhino face to face (ok, I mean see by myself, not video, camera ) . This is really horrible behavior. I do believe those people who do those to Rhino must have no commensurate with wild life.

Cynthia Carlson
Cynthia Carlson

The majority of the human race disgusts me. All of us who care need to fight back hard and take the Earth back to save it and all species who are victims of greed and ignorance.

Samuel Chari
Samuel Chari

Did the vets really try  to save that apparently super-hero rhino ?

vittorio pastoreli
vittorio pastoreli

sparare a vista sui bracconieri ...... pena di morte per i responsabili ...... 



Chuck Jones
Chuck Jones

Oh, please don't tell me they went and got the horns at the behest of this agent. That's just heartbreaking!

Krisztian Laszlo
Krisztian Laszlo

Another good reason why we should reinstate the death penality.

Donna McFadden
Donna McFadden

This is so sad,too sad for words really.But where there is DEMAND for a product,there will always be those who are willing to SUPPLY for a price,whether it be drugs or animal products,from the tourist willing to risk hiding an ivory carving in their luggage to the person who believes (for whatever reason) that a Rhino Horn will cure erectile dysfunction.


Dipanjan Mitra
Dipanjan Mitra

"This is a very disturbing trend, because wildlife crimes have now changed from a crime of opportunity to one of organized crime." I say, everything that is happening is an organized form and crime of destroying nature.

Phil Rodriques
Phil Rodriques

My next career move is to work trying to save endangered animals. Alternatives need to be introduced more to poachers.

Michael Rey Diputado
Michael Rey Diputado

The Chinese are the culprit behind the danger of having these animals in the brink of extinction.  From the illegal poaching, illegal ivory trade, and their traditional Chinese medicines.

Mojtaba Najafy
Mojtaba Najafy

So sad and disgusting as others have expressed!

Long ago, animal horns, furs, etc. were among few choices of medicine, garments, ornaments and decoration humans could think of. Now, with clothing and fashion industry ahead of all, it's like some people don't want to wake up. It's like they have chosen to be blind and live like and be primitives. It's a big time crime against both animals and the idea of humanity advancing and evolving through time. 

Sad it is. The picture of rhino makes me wanna cry.

Perry Spann
Perry Spann

This is sadly disgusting. Some humans are just inhumane and horrible.

Louise Dickinson
Louise Dickinson

death sentence ! they should face the worst punishment that can be given ...  

Elizabeth Webster
Elizabeth Webster

@D Ram I'm not sure which is more disturbing.  This article or your callous and hateful comment.

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

@Ladylansing Lincoln What about stepping on a spider? Spiders don't bother me when they come in but many people do kill them. Should they be executed? What about fishermen or pest controllers? The list goes on.

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