The Snohomish County, Wash. pet store owner and two other men face prison time for smuggling rare and endangered turtles into China.
For four years, pet shop owner Nathaniel Swanson and two Hong Kong-born middlemen smuggled rare turtles into China. Swanson is the former owner of Seattle Reptiles in Everett and the former owner of Swanee’s Exotics in Monroe.
Swanson, Tak Ming Tsang and Cheuk Yin Ko shipped protected and endangered reptiles across the Pacific - and according to prosecutors, many of them died in transit.
“While reptile trafficking may not garner the hefty price tags or media attention of ivory or certain other species such as tigers or rhinos, it is a very prolific illegal trade,” Assistant U.S. Attorneys James Oesterle and Matthew Diggs said in court papers.
“The trade of reptiles as pets in Asia, combined with habitat destruction worldwide, has significantly diminished native turtle populations.”
The three men were charged in May of 2013 and have pleaded guilty to related offenses. Prosecutors asked that Swanson be sentenced today to a federal prison term of 18 months.
Most of the turtles that the three men allegedly shipped out of the U.S. were eastern box turtles. This species is considered to be vulnerable to extinction. Box turtles like the eastern box turtle are slow to mature, long lived, and have relatively few offspring per year, making the box turtle a species particularly susceptible to human-induced issues.
Swanson also allegedly smuggled at least one critically endangered Arakan forest turtle - a species long thought to be extinct.
According to ARKIVE, until 1994, the Arakan forest turtle was thought to be extinct, with the last prior sighting in 1908. Sadly, the 1994 rediscovery occurred when a few specimens were found in a Chinese food market.
According to PETA, wildlife smuggling is devastating to animal populations: animals suffer and die during transit, there is the threat of spreading disease, and wild animals are inappropriate as "pets."
During the investigation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents seized several boxes containing approximately 20 turtles each.
In a letter to the court, the World Wildlife Fund stated that as habitat for freshwater turtles becomes scarce, people are eating and collecting turtles taken by hunters. More than 10 million turtles are eaten annually in Southeast Asia.
Swanson asked to be sentenced to probation and described himself as a reptile lover whose dream was to operate a pet store.
“I lived that dream and failed, and I am sad that it has left me in this current state,” Swanson said in a letter.
According to court records, defendant Tsang is a Hong Kong resident who has been pursuing his two-year associates degree for six years...and has been in the U.S. on a student visa for six out of the past seven years. He has yet to earn the degree.
Prosecutors asked that Tsang be sentenced to one year in federal detention.
Updates to this story will be posted as they occur.
"Like" this column to help share it with others!
If you would like to continue to receive important information, features, and news related to pets in Seattle and beyond, please click the "Subscribe" icon located at the top of this column. It's free, convenient, and anonymous!
You can also find Seattle Pets on Facebook!