By Hayden Kenez
When Kai Xu, a Canadian resident, was apprehended at the Windsor-Detroit border crossing last month with more than 50 turtles — poached from the Canadian wilderness and ultimately bound for China — experts knew it wasn’t an isolated incident.
“All of the evidence points to Mr. Xu directing others and doing it for a very considerable time and for an extreme amount of profit,” assistant U.S. attorney Sarah Woodward reportedly told court proceedings, according to The Detroit News. She went on to reveal an elaborate network orchestrating the harvests and shipments, and said they have ties to organized crime.
The highly publicized seizure — followed in early October by the arrest of another Canadian man allegedly trying to smuggle more than 1,000 turtles in his luggage onto a flight from Detroit to Shanghai — helped to shed light on the burgeoning world of turtle poaching. Some authorities say it is quietly usurping the illegal harvest of other wildlife, as organized-crime rings tap into Asian markets that offer an insatiable demand for the reptiles.
The demand is largely borne out of dietary and cultural niches in Asia, where soft-shell turtles are considered a symbol of health and long life.
“It’s under a belief that, since turtles have long lives, eating them will confer some of that longevity into the consumer,” says Gavin Shire, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “So turtles are generally being smuggled out for that purpose.”
Hard-shell turtles are reserved for collectors, typically from Europe, who pay steep figures for rare species.
With Asian markets literally devouring North American turtles, the practice is poised to become a top money maker for smuggling rings, which may eschew other wildlife in favour of lucrative turtles.
“There’s been a lot of press coverage on ivory trafficking, but it’s by no means exclusive to that species,” says Mr. Shire, hinting that the scale of turtle smuggling far exceeds what authorities have revealed. “It’s very difficult to know what’s being smuggled. Usually when it comes to trafficking [the numbers we see are] the tip of the iceberg.”
While better-publicized cases of wildlife poaching — ivory, for example — have waned under fierce international condemnation, far less attention has been paid to poachers who have been steadily depleting turtle populations in Canada and the United States for sale in Asian markets, where some of the more rare creatures can fetch prices of nearly $2,000 each.
Indeed, authorities estimate the shipment Mr. Xu was taking to Shanghai would garner US $30,000 on the black market.
“Animal trafficking is very much like drug trafficking,” said Mr. Shire, adding that the black-market value for poached goods “can command very high prices – sometimes higher than cocaine and heroin.” More....