In the 10-month period from November 2017 to August 2018, brothers Chu Sen Guan and Chu Wei Guan shipped more than 600 native North American turtles — including eastern box turtles, Florida box turtles, and wood turtles — from the United States to Hong Kong.
Before packing the turtles in boxes, the men would stuff each one inside a sock and tightly wrap it with tape to prevent it from moving its limbs. That sound would have drawn attention to the boxes. They weren’t labeled as live animals; they were labeled as toys or clothes.
Nevertheless, in late 2017, wildlife inspectors for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intercepted one of the parcels at the International Mail Facility at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Discovering turtles not toys, special agents and wildlife inspectors with the Service’s Office of Law Enforcement followed a paper trail that led them to the brothers.
Today, Chu Sen Guan was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, New York, to one year in prison, one year of supervised release, and a $15,000 fine for his role in a conspiracy to smuggle approximately 635 turtles, valued at more than $1 million on the black market.
His brother Chu Wei Guan was sentenced for his role on September 19, 2022, to two concurrent one-year-and-a-day sentences, one year of supervised release, and a $10,000 fine.
“Stopping the illegal commercialization of native reptiles, and the inhumane treatment of these animals in transit, is a high priority for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” said the Office of Law Enforcement’s Assistant Director Edward J. Grace. “We will continue to work closely with our partners including the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute these important cases.”
The successful investigation led by Special Agent Thomas Loring of the Service's Office of Law Enforcement was made possible by close coordination among multiple partners, including the U.S. Postal Service, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Eastern District of New York U.S. Attorney’s Office. The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Siegel.
The investigation revealed the brothers weren't acting alone. They were players in a network of illegal turtle suppliers, smugglers, and buyers that law enforcement officers have been working to dismantle for years.
North Carolina resident Jesse James Freeman was one of the Guans’ turtle suppliers. Freeman was sentenced in May of 2022 to 18 months in federal prison for his role in the turtle smuggling network. He admitted to smuggling at least 722 eastern box turtles, 122 spotted turtles, and three wood turtles.
Kang Juntao was one of the brothers’ buyers in Hong Kong. In December of 2020, he was extradited to the U.S. to face trial, and the following October, was sentenced to 38 months in prison and one year of supervised release on a federal money laundering conviction for financing smugglers who shipped at least 1,500 native turtles abroad.
Every turtle counts
Turtles have long been targets of the wildlife trade, whether for food, medicine, or increasingly as status symbols, valued by wealthy collectors for their novelty and beauty. But the internet has fueled unsustainable demand in an unsustainable industry, despite regulations that have been put in place to protect them.
The turtle species the brothers smuggled are all protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a mechanism for regulating international trade in species whose survival is considered threatened by trade.
The eastern box turtle and the Florida box turtle are subspecies of the common box turtle and have been listed in CITES since 1995. The wood turtle has been protected under CITES since 1992. A permit is required to export them.
All three species are priorities for conservation agencies in the U.S. The eastern box turtle is a species of special concern in many states where it occurs and is state listed as endangered in Maine; the Florida box turtle is protected throughout its range in Florida and Georgia; and wood turtle has been petitioned for Endangered Species Act listing due to population declines associated with the loss and fragmentation of habitat across its range.
It’s illegal to conceal animals in a box and attempt to ship them abroad with false information on the label — a violation of the Lacey Act, and federal regulations for humane wildlife transportation.
Wildlife trafficking threatens many species and turtles are particularly vulnerable to organized exploitation. It typically takes turtles a decade or more to reach reproductive age, and most don’t last that long. They fall victim to natural predators, like foxes or great blue herons, when they are tiny, vulnerable hatchlings.
Those that do make it must reproduce for their entire lives to ensure one or two hatchlings also survive to adulthood to replace them in the population.
When someone takes an individual turtle out of the wild, especially an adult, they might be taking that turtle’s replacement too. When someone takes hundreds of turtles, they put entire populations at risk, undermining the ecological balance of the complex natural communities they’re part of.
Turtles cannot afford these losses: many populations are already stressed by habitat loss,, and vehicle traffic when crossing roads.
The Service recovered approximately 100 turtles from the shipments sent by Chu Sen Guan and Chu Wei Guan. While these animals were spared from the black market, they can’t go back to the wild. The Service placed them with partners who could professionally care for them.
When turtles have been confined together in unnatural conditions, like boxes, it’s risky to let them go, especially if you don’t know where they came from. They can introduce diseases or muddy the gene pool of populations that have adapted to survive in certain places over generations. Likewise, the released turtles are not likely to survive in unfamiliar landscapes.
Turtles can live long lives in the wild if we let them. Here’s how you can help:
Report wildlife crime. If you believe you have information related to a wildlife crime, please report it directly to our law enforcement officers: 1-844-FWS-TIPS (397-8477) or Wildlife Crime Tips | FWS.gov. When possible and safe to acquire, capture screenshots, links, images, location, and any other relevant information to help with a potential investigation. Be situationally aware and trust your gut. Do not put yourself in harm’s way to gather documentation of a wildlife crime. If you feel unsafe, call 911.
Keep locations of wild turtles to yourself, especially online. It can be exciting to see turtles in the wild, and to share your discovery. But if you post a photo of a turtle online, don’t include information on where you found it. Turtle poachers may mine the internet for this information and use it to target sites. If you want help identifying a turtle you saw in the wild, reach out to a local nature center or your state wildlife agency.
Before you buy, do your homework. Always ask where a turtle came from before you consider buying one. Turtles less than four inches cannot be sold or distributed in the U.S. When in doubt, ask for the seller’s permit to sell turtles or contact your state wildlife management agency for advice. For information about bringing reptile pets to the U.S., visit the Service’s General Import/Export Requirements page If you’d like to speak with a Service wildlife inspector, contact information may be found here: Wildlife Inspection Offices