By Sharon Hill
The meeting of strangers in a parking lot looks like a typical undercover bust until the dealer reaches for his Tupperware container.
Inside is a northern map turtle and before the turtle snatcher can tuck more than $100 into his pocket, he’s being arrested.
If it was a rarer turtle, he’d have wanted a trade, maybe a couple of endangered snakes. And that could tip off undercover officers to a larger black market poaching or smuggling operation warranting more surveillance or a joint investigation with U.S. officials.
Whether it’s a poacher involved in the illegal pet trade or a cottager unwittingly snatching an endangered turtle, these are the types of scenarios undercover officers with the Ministry of Natural Resources have confronted as they stepped up their enforcement in the last decade.
“Right up there with trafficking with guns and drugs and people is wildlife,” said Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources intelligence and investigations specialist Victor Miller. “It’s lucrative.”
Like ivory and rhino horns, turtles snatched from the wild are part of a global illegal wildlife trade estimated to be worth as much as $30 billion a year.
Miller, who has worked undercover, now serves with a team of conservation officer specialists in the MNR’s intelligence and investigations section of the enforcement branch.
He won’t reveal where poachers are most active in the province but said Essex County and Southwestern Ontario are the hotspot of endangered species. Seven of eight turtle species in Ontario are at risk and Windsor-Essex has a handful of them including the threatened Blanding’s turtle, spiny softshell turtle and eastern musk turtle.
Miller said turtles are being smuggled into Europe and Southeast Asia. Rare turtles are prized by collectors addicted to adding to their black market hoard and snapping turtles are wanted both for food and for collectors.
“We can’t afford to lose even one turtle out of many of our populations,” said Steve Marks, a Windsor herpetologist who is a board member of the Essex County Field Naturalists’ Club and the Canadian Herpetological Society.
The endangered spotted turtle used to be fairly widespread in Essex County but now it is all but gone, Marks said. The cute and colourful turtles were targeted heavily for the pet trade and when entire local populations suddenly disappeared in the 1980s it was suspicious, he said. “People love spotted turtles and they love them to death. That’s the problem.”
Marks said turtles continue to lose habitat, are hit by cars and their eggs are an easy meal for plentiful predators such as raccoons. Some turtles can take a decade or two to reach sexual maturity, so losing a few females can devastate a population.
“If they’re not the most susceptible to actual collection, which they likely are, they’re the ones that feel the damage the most because they are the ones that are most in peril already. Our turtle populations can’t take any more pressure,” Marks said.
Ojibway Nature Centre naturalist Paul Pratt said staff members are forever chasing kids who are trying to catch turtles in the wild and, occasionally, even snatching them from display cases at the centre.
“We’re more at risk because most of our natural areas are quite small. It’s not like we have endless wilderness in Essex County where if you take a couple turtles out you’re only taking a miniscule part of the population,” Pratt said. “One person can cause a local extinction.”
It is difficult to know how much poaching happens here, but just the possibility has made local naturalists “extremely cautious” about revealing any locations of reptiles, Pratt said.
Miller, of the MNR, said there are international black market brokers in Ontario so there’s a good chance native turtles or other endangered species are being smuggled out when turtles are being smuggled into the province. Increased enforcement is catching people trying to smuggle turtles into Canada.
Almost a year ago, 22-year-old Xin Hong Tong of Windsor was arrested at the Ambassador Bridge after border officials found 76 live turtles and tortoises in an area of a van used for stowing seats.
He is expected to appear in court Aug. 28 to enter a plea or set a trial date for four charges under the Customs Act including smuggling, failing to report, making false statements, and attempting to evade duty and taxes from the July 6, 2013 border stop. He also faces provincial charges under the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act for importing an animal into Canada without the prescribed permit and in contravention of a foreign state’s law.
His lawyer Robert DiPietro said the University of Windsor student with no criminal record didn’t have the proper permits.
“He states he was picking up turtles for a friend,” DiPietro said Friday. “He wasn’t trying to hide anything or smuggle anything.”
Canadian border officials seized tortoises worth about $5,000, DiPietro said. The 44 tortoises included 20 marginated tortoises, 12 Greek tortoises, six Russian tortoises and six Hermann’s tortoises. They were worth as much as $110 each, he said. All four species are listed with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and required an export permit, he said.
Also seized were 32 live turtles including 15 red bellied short necked turtles. DiPietro said the turtles had been purchased from Florida and shipped to Michigan.
Lonny Koote, regional director for the wildlife enforcement directorate with Environment Canada, didn’t comment on the Windsor case but said in general turtles smuggled across the U.S. border into Ontario are often destined for China.
Reptiles are one of the top targets in Canada for the illegal wildlife trade that is estimated to be worth between $10 billion to $30 billion a year, Koote said
“Historically it’s been mainly ivory and rhino and tiger. They were the popular species but now people are realizing it’s a lot more than that, a lot bigger than that,” Koote said.