Undercover sting takes down international endangered turtle smuggler

Endangered species make popular pets.
Endangered species make popular pets.
Image: REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang
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An undercover sting operation spanning two continents led to the arrest of an alleged international reptile smuggler last week, who now faces charges in federal court. Prosecutors say the man had hundreds of protected freshwater turtles shipped from Florida to Hong Kong over the course of at least 18 months.

Authorities apprehended Nai Chun Vincent Cheung, 54, the buyer of the reptiles, in California on Aug. 8. He is accused of conspiracy, smuggling, and violating the Lacey Act, a 1900 US law that bans trafficking in illegal wildlife.

The case, outlined in federal court documents obtained by Quartz, involves three vulnerable turtle species, one threatened iguana, and a confidential informant with a secret that took law enforcement by surprise.

The issue

Freshwater turtles are among the world’s most endangered vertebrates. Last December, federal authorities broke up a turtle trafficking syndicate operating between South Carolina, New Jersey, and Hong Kong, which arranged hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal shipments via Facebook Messenger. A 2017 operation dismantled another turtle trafficking ring, which stretched from Louisiana to California to Hong Kong.

While environmental regulations have helped endangered turtle populations rebound, they remain under threat. For most species, only about 2% of hatchlings reach adulthood, according to Elise Bennet, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that seeks to protect endangered species through legal action. Therefore, every adult turtle taken from the wild—particularly females—removes vital egg-laying capacity from the population.

“Even a very modest collection of wild-caught turtles can have very significant impacts on wild populations,” Bennett told Quartz.

Bennet said the illegal trade primarily supplies the Asian pet market.

“There are four revered creatures in China and three of them are fictional—the Dragon, the Phoenix, and the white tiger,” she said. “The fourth one is the tortoise. And so it’s thought to be very good luck to have a pet turtle.”

The scheme

Legal turtle exports are heavily regulated and require permits, so smugglers circumvent the process by hiding turtles in cereal boxes, snow boots, and down their pants. Millions of non-protected freshwater turtles are also legitimately exported from the US each year, and wildlife agents can’t inspect them all. One trick often used by smugglers is to slip some illegal, mislabeled specimens into a larger shipment of legal ones.

In March, US Fish and Wildlife agents at Miami International Airport encountered an outbound shipment of “live reptiles” headed to Hong Kong. A customs declaration filed by the sender, Reptile Paradise of Eustis, Florida, claimed the shipment contained common North American turtles not subject to any export restrictions. But a search of the shipment revealed “numerous” undeclared Florida box turtles, a species protected under the multilateral Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. The protected box turtles were hidden beneath layers of mud turtles, which aren’t protected, say court filings.

Box turtles are listed in CITES Appendix II, meaning trade is restricted and monitored in an effort to prevent further destruction of the species. Export permits are required.

The shipment was cleared for departure in order “to fulfill investigative objectives,” a government affidavit explains. The recipient of the turtles was listed as Vincent Cheung, of a similarly-named Hong Kong shop called “Reptiles Paradise.”

In April, Reptile Paradise in Florida shipped another batch of turtles to Reptiles Paradise in Hong Kong, again declaring only the non-protected species. This time, Fish and Wildlife agents discovered 49 protected box turtles and 12 spotted turtles, which are also protected under CITES Appendix II. Like before, the illicit animals were hidden among large numbers of non-protected mud turtles. Again, the shipment was allowed to depart for Hong Kong to “fulfill investigative objectives.”

The flip

In June, agents paid a visit to Reptile Paradise in Florida and met with the owner. Court filings describe the person as the “individual suspected as being responsible for the preparation and submission of the false export declarations,” and refer to him as “co-conspirator A.”

As it turned out, the Fish and Wildlife Service already knew co-conspirator A. For the previous six years, he had been working as a confidential informant for the agency, providing them with information on competing wildlife traders. Emails reviewed by the agents indicated that Cheung knew about his partner’s “cooperative status” with law enforcement, even as the two engaged in their own illicit scheme.

A search of public records identifies the owner of Reptile Paradise as Michael Allen Pata, who did not respond to Quartz’s requests for comment. A Twitter account in Pata’s name reveals, among other things, that he is a fan of US president Donald Trump and a conspiracy theorist: “Entrepreneur, Animal Enthusiast, Sustainability, Wildlife, Pets, Environment, Aquaculture, Fun #MAGA #QAnon @realDonaldTrump supporter”

Agents told Pata, 54, that their “discoveries of the undeclared wildlife in [his] export cargo…was inconsistent with the terms of his cooperative relationship with law enforcement.” Pata eventually came clean and told agents he sent the protected turtles to Cheung using customs declarations he knew were false. Pata said he and Cheung used coded language when discussing their activities: “Ear Infection” for a box turtle, and “Small High Color Cooter” for a spotted turtle.

At the time of each shipment, Pata said he would file bogus invoices with the Fish and Wildlife Service, which went into the standard carnet that accompanies every commercial export leaving the US. Pata would then follow up by emailing the real invoice to Cheung, which “reflected the actual species, quantities, and true price of the turtles Cheung had bought.” Cheung would then wire Pata the money, plus a flat fee of $4,000.

Presumably spooked, Pata agreed to cooperate with the feds and take part in a sting to get Cheung. Pata would continue to supply Cheung with illegal exports of protected turtles, under the feds’ supervision.

The end

On June 19, Pata shipped nine diamondback terrapins and 20 undeclared box turtles to Cheung in Hong Kong. Agents inventoried the cargo on its way out of the country and cleared it for departure, once again, “in order to fulfill investigative objectives.” Pata’s phony invoice, included with the shipment, reflected a total due of more than $35,000.

The next day, Pata emailed Cheung the real invoice, which he also provided to investigators. On top of the original $35,000, Pata added another $5,100 to the total, for “16 ear infection;” “4 ear infection extra scutes;” and “9 purple color,” which was their code word for diamondback terrapins. A few days later, Cheung wired Pata the money, plus his usual $4,000 fee.

Over the next several weeks, Cheung ordered dozens more illegal turtles from Pata, as well as two endangered rhinoceros iguanas, which are threatened with extinction and, as such, listed in CITES Appendix I with the most at-risk animals in the world. For this, Cheung paid more than $87,000.

Agents finally arrested Cheung last Thursday in California. Details of his arrest have not been made available, and Cheung does not yet have an attorney listed in court filings. He is due back in court Aug. 12.