Northern California Men Illegally Sold Black Rhino Horns: Feds

A grand jury has indicted two Bay Area men with illegally selling endangered black rhinoceros horns that used to belong to an elderly man who wanted to get rid of them before moving to Thailand.

Court documents filed in U.S. District Court in Nevada name Edward N. Levine, 63, of Mill Valley, Calif., and Lumsden W. Quan, 46, of San Francisco, as the two alleged black market dealers in the Las Vegas case dubbed “Operation Crash” by U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

A “crash” is a herd of rhinos.

A complaint was first filed on March 20 and the grand jury in Las Vegas indicted them on Tuesday.

Levine’s attorney, Lawrence Semenza, told NBC Bay Area by phone on Thursday that he had no comment. Quan’s attorney, Christopher Oram, wasn’t immediately available for comment. Quan, whose email is listed in the court documents, did not return an electronic request seeking comment.

Both he and Levine are out of custody on bond. Neither have yet to enter a plea. If convicted of all counts, they face a maximum of five years in prison. They were ordered back to court on April 10.

The two are formally charged with one count of conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act, which bars the sale of wildlife that was transported, and the Endangered Species Act, which bars the interstate transportation of endangered species for a commercial purpose. All are felonies.

The alleged acts occurred between Jan. 20 and March 19. And the federal complaint alleges the transaction was caught on four video cameras. Neither the U.S. Attorneys Office nor the U.S. Fish and Wildlife would release those images.

The two, who are mentioned once in the documents as “partners,” are not charged with flying to Africa and whacking off the head of a rhino to take its valuable horns for sale.

Rather, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Special Agent Vance Jurgens wrote in the federal complaint (PDF) that they allegedly conspired to sell two antique horns for $55,000 being sold by an elderly man who wanted to shed some of his belongings before moving to Thailand. The horns average $25,000 a pound, he wrote.

Jurgens was able to make the arrest at the Southpoint Hotel in Las Vegas on March 19, because he had set up a plan with a confidential informant has been helping the government after he was arrested on his own felony wildlife smuggling charges.

Through email and phone conversations Quan and Levine planned to meet with the source to trade the two horns. A date was set to meet in Las Vegas. And then at the hotel, the source paid the two men with cash and transferred from a brown sack to a silver suitcase, documents state. The transaction was caught on video and audio recorders, according to the complaint.

Selling rhino horns across state lines is illegal, according to federal law.

The rhino population has decreased by 90 percent since 1970 due to poaching. In South Africa, for example, U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents said that 13 rhinos were poached in 2007, and more than 1,000 rhinos were poached there last year. There are just an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 black rhinos left in the world.

In many Asian cultures, especially in China and Vietnam, rhino horns are thought to have major health benefits, including being able to cure cancer and bring good luck.

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