Photograph by Brent Stirton, National Geographic

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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

Convicted Drug Dealer Indicted for Selling Rhino Horns

Undercover investigation nets alleged wildlife trafficker with ties to former Medellín drug cartel.

"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.

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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.

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."

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