EMAILED ON August 13, 2019 BY Wes Schlagenhauf

The smuggling of US turtles to China has become a shell of a problem

Last week, California authorities arrested Nai Chun Vincent Cheung — an alleged international reptile smuggler who orchestrated shipments of hundreds of protected freshwater turtles from Florida to Hong Kong over the course of at least 18 months.

According to official court documents obtained by Quartz, the case is primarily centered around 3 vulnerable American turtle species, and the lucrative industry of Asian turtle trafficking that has helped make freshwater turtles among the world’s most endangered species. 

American turtles are big biz in China

For centuries the turtle has been a symbol of universal order in Chinese culture, and owning one as a pet today is considered great luck. But there are darker forces behind the illegal Chinese turtle trade.

Some vulnerable US species are sold as collector’s items and culinary delicacies in the Asian black markets. They often sell for $1k apiece or even more.

The Cheung case further illustrates that illegal turtle tucking is often tied to US poachers willing to swap American wildlife to China in exchange for a little chedd.

A logistical nightmare

In the last few years, the feds have tracked multiple turtle smuggling operations in the US back to Hong Kong. According to experts, the problem lies with the logistics. 

Millions of freshwater turtles are also exported from the US legally each year, making it extremely difficult for customs officials to tell which is which. As always, the topsy-turvy turtle trade is no exception to having a negative impact on animal ecosystems.