Kang Juntao, 24, of Hangzhou City, China, financed a nationwide ring of criminals who smuggled at least 1,500 protected turtles out of the U.S., many of whom were bound with duct tape and stuffed into socks, Justice Department officials said Thursday.
“Wildlife trafficking is a serious crime that impacts imperiled species at home and abroad,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith said.
Sold for use in food or traditional medicine, most of the turtles sell on the Hong Kong pet trade market for $650 to $2,000 each -- except for colorful box turtles, which can fetch up to $20,000 apiece, authorities said.
Kang bought the turtles from poachers in the United States and sent money through U.S. banks, including one in South Jersey, to pay for them and their illegal shipment to Hong Kong, an indictment returned in U.S. District Court in Camden alleges.
The turtles -- many of whom were females with "intense and unique spot patterns" -- were then sold on the Asian pet trade black market for thousands of dollars each, depending on their sex, coloring, and age, it says.
What Kang didn't know, federal authorities said, is that one of the middlemen was an undercover Fish & Wildlife agent.
Kang paid the agent nearly $80,000 in exchange for 75 turtles sent to him from a supplier in North Carolina, according to a complaint on file in federal court.
The United States, Malaysia, China, and 181 other countries have signed an international treaty known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which restricts trade in species that may be threatened with extinction.
The indictment accuses Kang of trafficking five turtle species protected by the treaty:
- the eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina);
- the Florida box turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri);
- the Gulf Coast box turtle (Terrapene carolina major)
- the spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata);
- the wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta).
He also sent money via PayPal to the United States to purchase turtles from sellers advertising on social media or reptile trade websites, the indictment charges.
The suppliers then shipped the turtles to middlemen across five different states, it says.
The middlemen were “typically Chinese citizens who entered the country on student visas,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jonathan D. Brightbill of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division said.
Kang “paid and instructed these intermediaries to repackage the turtles in boxes with false labels for clandestine shipment to Hong Kong,” Brightbill said.
Neither Kang nor his accomplices declared the turtles to U.S. or Chinese customs or obtained the required CITES permits.
The Royal Malaysia Police arrested Kang in January 2019 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on a request from the United States.
His extradition was finalized this past September and Kang was surrendered to the United States on Wednesday to face federal money-laundering charges, authorities said.
The USFWS conducted the investigation and escorted Kang to the United States. The government is represented by Trial Attorneys Ryan Connors and Lauren Steele of the Environment and Natural Resources Division’s Environmental Crimes Section.
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