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Everett, Wash. turtle trafficker sentenced to one year in prison

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On Saturday, Jan. 18, KOMO 4 News reported that an Everett, Washington turtle trafficker plead guilty to a federal conspiracy and received a one-year prison sentence.

Nathaniel Swanson, 36, had owned Seattle Reptiles in Everett and Swanee’s Exotics in Monroe. He faced federal charges along with two other men for smuggling rare and endangered turtles into China.

Swanson had asked to be sentenced to probation and described himself as a reptile lover. Prosecutors had asked that Swanson be sentenced to a federal prison term of 18 months.

Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said that the turtles' legs were taped inside their shells to inhibit movement - and keep them from arousing suspicion while they were being smuggled. Many of the animals died during or soon after transport.

Most of the illegally trafficked turtles were protected under international law. The surviving turtles were seized and are now living at zoos and wildlife centers. As part of his sentence, Swanson must share in the $28,500 cost of caring for the animals.

For four years, Swanson and two Hong Kong-born middlemen smuggled the rare turtles into China.

Swanson, Tak Ming Tsang, and Cheuk Yin Ko shipped protected and endangered reptiles across the Pacific. Tsang and Ko have also been prosecuted.

“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 plead guilty to related offenses.

Most of the turtles that the three men allegedly shipped out of the U.S. were eastern box turtles, a species 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.

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.

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