COLUMBIA, S.C. — Three South Carolinians and a North Carolinian have been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of operating an illegal scheme to smuggle tiny turtles in and out of the United States.
The turtles were shipped by U.S. mail and FedEx, packaged in socks and covered up with little pieces of candy or noodles, according to the indictment. Many of the packages were labeled “snacks.”
Smuggling turtles, many endangered and federally protected, is a little known but profitable illegal business. Several shipments, totaling 148 turtles, were estimated to be worth “between $117,200 and $409,250,” according to the indictment.
“Collectors in the U.S. will pay thousands of dollars for exotic Chinese turtles, and collectors in China will pay thousands for U.S. turtles,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday, who is prosecuting the case.
One of the men indicted, Matthew Harrison Kail of North Carolina, was caught illegally collecting two spotted turtles at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge near the Outer Banks, according to the indictment. When apprehended, he had $17,000 in cash and two ornate diamondback terrapins on him, the indictment said.
The South Carolinians indicted were Joseph Logan Brooks of Holly Hill and Matthew Tyler Fischer and William Martin Fischer, both of Harleyville.
Only Brooks has a lawyer, according to court records. His attorney, Debbie Barbier, could not be reached for comment.
The four are charged with failing to obtain the permits required under an international wildlife protection treaty to import and export turtles, and engaging in a conspiracy to carry out illegal wildlife smuggling, importing and exporting the little shelled reptiles. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum prison sentence of five years and a fine of up to $250,000.
Federal investigators learned about the four after the 2016 arrest of a New York City man, Jason Hsu.
Federal inspectors opened packages at New York’s JFK International Airport and found 48 endangered Chinese and South American turtles nestled in piles of candy and noodles.
The packages were addressed to Hsu at his home address. Agents descended on Hsu’s apartment and charged him with illegal smuggling.
According to the just-issued S.C. indictment, Hsu — who cooperated with federal investigators — was a key contact in the illegal shipping of endangered turtles in and out of South Carolina.
Others involved in the conspiracy used Facebook to message Hsu about turtle smuggling, the indictment said.
They also texted each other, exchanging messages referring to turtles such as, “I need badly 20.20 ornates; 10.30 strip necks; 2.5 juvie rings; 2.5 blotched; And of course mangroves LOL and what are the albino temple turtles worth to you?”
Although turtle smuggling has not attracted as much attention as, say, trafficking in elephant ivory, it is a booming business, wildlife experts say.
“In Asia, where turtles are highly valued as a food source and often seen as a medicinal food, they have eaten and collected most of the wild turtles,” said Will Dillman, reptile and amphibian conservation program coordinator at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
“Asians have started looking to other markets to supply that food demand, and there’s also trade for pets as well,” Dillman said.
The Southeast and South Carolina “happen to be relatively rich in the numbers and diversity of turtles,” so it is a prime hunting ground for smugglers to harvest turtles to meet the Asian demand, Dillman said.
Being shipped by mail doesn’t hurt the turtles as long as the package doesn’t take too long to arrive.
“Most reptiles can survive — very, very easily — several days without water and much longer without food,” Dillman said.
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