Woman gets probation for role in O.C.-based scheme to trade in endangered rhinoceros horns

LOS ANGELES — A woman who participated in a Garden Grove-based scheme to illegally trade in endangered South African black rhinoceros horns was sentenced Monday to three years of probation that includes a year of home detention.

Nhu Mai Nguyen, 49, formerly of the San Bernardino County city of Highland, was also ordered by U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder to pay a $2,000 fine and participate in counseling for gambling addiction during the period of probation.

Nguyen agreed to forfeit 100 gold bars seized from her safe deposit box.

Nguyen is among five defendants who pleaded guilty in Los Angeles federal court since 2012 to their roles in the smuggling conspiracy, which generated millions of dollars in profits, as well as money to purchase more contraband rhinoceros horns and pay bribes to customs officials in at least one other nation, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

According to court papers, Nguyen received packages of rhino horns at a nail salon she formerly operated and transferred them to her former boyfriend, Jimmy Kha, knowing that the packages contained the horns of endangered animals. The horns were eventually shipped to China and her native Vietnam.

“I know that what I’ve done is wrong,” Nguyen told the judge through a translator, asking for home detention “if your honor would forgive me for what I did.”

In some Asian countries, where it sells for about $1,400 an ounce, powdered rhino horn is rumored to cure cancer, improve general health and prevent illness. It is also used to treat dozens of ailments, including hangovers, according to Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

Father and son Jimmy and Felix Kha, both of Garden Grove, each admitted in 2012 to purchasing white and black rhinoceros horn in interstate and intrastate commerce, knowing that the animals were protected by federal law as endangered and threatened species. Both defendants stated that they purchased the horns in order to export them overseas to be sold and made into libation cups or traditional medicine.

Both acknowledged making payments to Vietnamese customs officials to ensure clearance of horn shipments sent to that country. In addition, the Khas each admitted to failing to pay income tax owed in 2009 and 2010.

In May 2013, Snyder sentenced Jimmy and Felix Kha to 42 and 46 months in prison, respectively.

At the peak of the scheme in 2011, 448 wild rhinos had been slaughtered for their horns in South Africa alone, prosecutors wrote in court papers.

Illegal trafficking in wildlife has been ranked as the fourth most valuable illicit economy in the world, behind narcotics, guns and human trafficking, and is estimated to be worth several billion dollars a year, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

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Man charged with killing protected mountain lion P-38, which roamed mountains northwest of LA

VENTURA — A Simi Valley man was charged with shooting and killing a protected mountain lion that roamed the mountains northwest of Los Angeles and was wearing a GPS tracking collar.

Alfredo Gonzalez, 60, was charged with two misdemeanors for allegedly shooting the male cougar, known as P-38, and vandalizing its collar, the Ventura County district attorney’s office announced Tuesday.

It is illegal to shoot a mountain lion without a state permit.

Prosecutors believe that Gonzalez shot the animal in the head in Simi Valley, possibly on July 2, when National Park Service researchers received a “mortality signal” from the collar, the agency said.

Prosecutors have not released a possible motive for the shooting.

P-38 was born in 2012 and was known to roam the Santa Susana Mountains. He was believed to have fathered four litters of cubs.

The mountain lion was part of a population that park service biologists have been studying for more than a decade.

If convicted, Gonzalez could be sentenced to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. He also might have to pay $2,300 in restitution for vandalizing the collar, the district attorney’s office said.

It was not immediately clear whether Gonzalez had an attorney.

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Garden Grove man pleads guilty to smuggling live corals in Pringles cans

LOS ANGELES — A Garden Grove man pleaded guilty Monday to attempting to smuggle federally protected live corals by packing them into Pringles potato chip canisters and hiding them in his mother’s luggage for transport to Mexico.

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Jorge Vazquez, 40, entered his plea in Los Angeles federal court to unlawfully attempting to export some 70 live invertebrate specimens, including 27 live corals, protected by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora — known as CITES.

The animals — packed into nine Pringles cans and hidden in luggage — were discovered Aug. 28, 2013, during a baggage inspection at Los Angeles International Airport. Live corals are frequently used to decorate aquariums.

Vazquez used an internet forum to sell live corals and other invertebrates to customers in Mexico. He admitted to packing them into the Pringles cans, then placing the cans in his mother’s luggage for transport to Mexico City for delivery to his customers.

U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II set sentencing for Nov. 19 on the class-A misdemeanor charge, which carries a possible penalty of up to a year in federal prison followed by a yearlong supervised release and a $100,000 fine.

Vazquez, who is not a citizen of the United States, may also be subject to deportation after sentencing, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather C. Gorman.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent in Charge Jill Birchell said previously that wildlife smuggling is a “trans-national crime that often decimates not only wild populations of animals and fish but, as in the case of smuggled live corals, the very habitat that imperiled wildlife depend on for survival.”

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Orphaned mountain lion cubs from Orange County join Oakland Zoo

By KATHLEEN KIRKWOOD

OAKLAND — The Oakland Zoo is caring for two orphaned mountain lion cubs that were found in Orange County two weeks apart and veterinarians will test to determine if they are siblings, zoo officials said Wednesday.

The cubs, both males about 3 to 4 months old, weigh close to 30 pounds. Officials believe they may have been orphaned after an adult female mountain lion was struck and killed by a motorist in the area where they were found, officials said.

They were found about 15 miles apart in Orange County’s Silverado Canyon and Rancho Santa Margarita. The first was discovered in a resident’s backyard and the second, approximately two weeks later, on a roadside.

The second male cub arrived at Oakland Zoo on Monday and is “feisty” and doing very well, officials said. His counterpart is more shy and cautious. Mountain lions are new to Oakland Zoo, and officials said the two cubs will serve as educational ambassadors at Oakland Zoo’s upcoming 56-acre California Trail expansion, opening in June 2018.

“It is an honor to provide a forever home for these young mountain lions, and honor their lives further by working to help conserve their wild counterparts,” said Amy Gotliffe, Director of Conservation at Oakland Zoo. “We have a lot of work to do to better protect and conserve pumas, from proper education to establishing wildlife crossings and proper enclosures for pets and livestock.”

The cubs were initially cared for by the Feline Conservation Center in Lake Forest before being brought to Oakland Zoo, where they are currently under quarantine and being cared for by the zoo’s veterinarians.

The Oakland Zoo helped found BACAT (Bay Area Cougar Action Team) in 2013, in partnership with the Bay Area Puma Project and the Mountain Lion Foundation, to help save mountain lions caught in the human-wildlife conflict with the CDFW.

The mountain lion habitat in the Zoo’s expansion site is intended to mimic California habitat, educate visitors about wildlife in California and inspire people to take action for the future of the state’s wildlife and resources. The habitat is currently under construction and is expected to be complete and ready for the cubs by February or March.

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