By Levi Pulkkinen
SEATTLE -- A Snohomish County pet store owner and two men other men now face prison for smuggling dozens of rare turtles to China.
Perpetuating an international trade threatening turtle stocks in the United States and Asia, pet shop owner Nathaniel Swanson and two Hong Kong-born middlemen worked for four years in the smuggling scheme. Swanson, former owner of Seattle Reptiles in Everett and former owner of Swanee's Exotics in Monroe, also imported endangered turtles from China.
For nearly four years, Swanson, Tak Ming Tsang and Tsang's roommate Cheuk Yin Ko shipped protected and endangered reptiles across the Pacific. Prosecutors note that many of the animals - stuffed into socks in some cases - died during 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."
Charged in May, all three men have since pleaded guilty to related offenses. Prosecutors have asked that Swanson be sentenced Friday to 18 months in federal prison.
Raised on Vashon Island, Swanson lent legitimacy to the illicit trade. Operating a brick-and-mortar pet shop while also brokering reptile sales online, Swanson supplied the turtles and lizards that were shipped to customers in China and elsewhere.
Most of the turtles alleged to have been shipped out of the United States were eastern box turtles, which are considered vulnerable to extinction. Swanson is alleged to have arranged to smuggle several endangered turtles, including one critically endangered turtle.
Since at least August 2008, the men had been illegally exporting turtles to Hong Kong by the box full. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents seized several boxes containing 20 or so turtles each during the investigation.
In an email exchange with a Hong Kong man also charged in the matter, Swanson offered photos of several turtles before agreeing to a turtle swap. In exchange for nine eastern box turtles, the Hong Kong man offered 10 black-breasted leaf turtles - an endangered species - as well as two specimens of critically endangered turtles, a Buorret's box turtle and an Arakan forest turtle.
Swanson is also alleged to have sold a gila monster to the man. Tsang, who lived in Auburn and Las Vegas during the scheme, mailed four gila monsters in one shipment.
None of the men made a great deal of money in the scheme. The total value of the animals involved is thought to have been less than $200,000, though estimates remain inexact.
While investigators don't know how many animals traded hands as part of the scam, Swanson is known to have imported an Arakan forest turtle, a critically endangered turtle once believed to be extinct.
Most of the turtles sent to China were resold as part of an international trade the World Wildlife Fund contends is seeing turtles "collected, traded and consumed in overwhelming numbers.
As habitat for freshwater turtles becomes scarce, people are eating and collecting turtles taken by hunters, four World Wildlife Fund leaders said in a letter to the court. More than 10 million turtles are eaten annually in Southeast Asia, creating an unsustainable drain on turtle stocks.
Writing the court separately, Rick Hudson, president of the Turtle Survival Alliance, said most of species illegally exported in the case cannot easily be bred commercial and don't live long in captivity.
"We continue to see large numbers of all four of these species offered for sale in Chinese pet markets, where they are sold as 'throw-away pets,' rarely surviving once they are sold," said Hudson, a former curator of the Fort Worth Zoo's herpetology department. "Mortality is high among market turtles and they represent a steady drain on remnant wild populations."
Asking that he be sentenced to probation, Swanson described himself as a reptile lover who went too far while struggling to sustain his dream of operating 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 the letter. "I have not lost my love for these creatures, but have acted in ways that I am ashamed of, and which have been harmful. …
"The amount of shame I am feeling, and have simultaneously brought the reptile industry, is enormous."
Prosecutors have asked that Tsang, a Hong Kong resident who was studying in Seattle when the scheme began, be sentenced to a year in federal detention. According to court records, Tsang has lived in the United States on a student visa for six of the past seven years but has yet to earn an associate's degree.
Like Swanson, Tsang, 24, asked that he be sentenced to probation in part, his attorney said, so he may continue his schooling at the College of Southern Nevada, a community college in the Las Vegas area. According to his attorney, Tsang earned about $200 a month shipping animals to China, supplementing the $1,200 stipend his family provided him.
Writing the court, defense attorney David Hammerstad said his client's crime stemmed from "naiveté and ignorance."
"Mr. Tsang never would have participated in the conspiracy if he had realized the seriousness of the laws he was breaking and understood the ecological harm that was caused by shipping illegal wildlife," Hammerstad said in court papers.
Tsang and Swanson are scheduled to be sentenced Friday by U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman. Ko is slated for sentencing Jan. 24. None of the men are currently in custody.
Three other men in Hong Kong were indicted during the prosecution. It appears they will not be extradited and are unlikely to face prosecution in China.