New York City man pleads guilty to smuggling exotic turtles

TOM HAYS

NEW YORK (AP) — A man who was mailed 42 rare turtles concealed in packages marked "snacks" pleaded guilty on Monday to charges he was trafficking an endangered species.

Hsien Lin Hsu admitted in federal court in Brooklyn that he was involved in a scheme with associates in Hong Kong to smuggle several varieties of turtles that are threatened with extinction because of the black market of buyers — paying hundreds of dollars per turtle — in China and elsewhere who eat or collect them.

The contraband included Chinese box turtles, black-breasted leaf turtles, Chinese big-headed turtles that are more suited for smuggling in parcels than other exotic wildlife because they can go long periods without food or water. All are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Hsu, 46, was arrested last year after U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents intercepted five packages from Hong Kong that were addressed to him and labeled "snacks." Inside were 42 turtles "concealed in various bags of noodles and small pieces of candy," according to a criminal complaint.

During a search of Hsu's home, agents found another 135 turtles, authorities said. Experts from the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo, determined that most of the turtles were taken from the wild, they said.

Hsu told investigators that he traded turtles with collectors in Hong Kong, sometimes sending them there concealed in socks, prosecutors said.

The Hsu case isn't isolated. In 2014, another turtle trafficker in Seattle was sentenced to one year in prison. Prosecutors in that case said the turtles' legs were taped inside their shells to prevent them from arousing suspicion by moving during shipment, and many died during or soon after transport.

It wasn't immediately clear where the turtles in the New York case are being kept.

The enforcement efforts are "imperative" to help save the 330 turtle species across the globe that are threatened, including 10 species that have fewer than 100 turtles left, said Jim Breheny, director of the Bronx Zoo.

"Turtle trafficking is decimating species worldwide," Breheny said.