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Press Release

Hong Kong Man Charged with Smuggling Protected Turtles

For Immediate Release
Office of Public Affairs

A federal grand jury charged a Chinese man on Friday in a four-count indictment alleging he smuggled eastern box turtles, a protected wildlife species, from the United States to China for the global pet trade black market.

Box turtles wrapped in socks in a box
Photo of box turtles, from the complaint in case U.S. v. Sai Keung Tin. Credit: USFWS.

Sai Keung Tin, 53, aka “SK Tin,” “Ricky Tin” and “Ji Yearlong,” of Hong Kong, is charged with four counts of exporting merchandise contrary to law.

Tin was arrested Feb. 25 at John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport in New York City and made his initial appearance the following day in federal court in Brooklyn. His arraignment is expected in the coming weeks in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

According to the indictment returned Friday, Tin in June 2023 knowingly and illegally aided in the exportation of 40 eastern box turtles to be sent from the United States to Hong Kong. Wildlife inspectors at an international mail facility in Torrance, California, intercepted four packages addressed to “Ji Yearlong,” a name believed to be one of Tin’s aliases, and which were to be shipped to Tin’s home in Hong Kong, according to court documents. Tin allegedly falsely labeled the packages containing the protected turtles as containing almonds and chocolate cookies.

Three of the packages contained between eight and 12 live eastern box turtles each – all bound in socks, according to court papers. The fourth package contained seven live eastern box turtles and one deceased eastern box turtle. A special agent also searched property records and learned that the name listed as the sender on each of the packages was fake.

Two box turtles seized from a shipping container
Photo of two eastern box turtles seized from a shipping container, from the complaint in case U.S. v. Sai Keung Tin. Credit: USFWS.

The eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) is a subspecies of the common box turtle and is native to forested regions of the eastern United States with some isolated populations in the Midwest. Turtles with colorful markings are especially prized in the domestic and foreign pet trade market, particularly in China and Hong Kong. These animals are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement to protect fish, wildlife and plants that are or may become threatened with extinction. The United States and China are parties to this agreement.

An affidavit that was filed with a criminal complaint filed with this case on Feb. 26 says that Tin was associated with Kang Juntao, of Hangzhou City, China, a convicted felon and international turtle smuggler. Kang recruited turtle poachers and suppliers in the United States to ship turtles domestically to middlemen, who would then bundle the turtles into other packages and export them to Hong Kong. The turtles were bound in socks to protect their shells and so they could not move and alert authorities.

Court papers allege that from June 2017 to December 2018, Kang caused at least 1,500 turtles – with a market value exceeding $2.25 million – to be shipped from the United States to Hong Kong. Middlemen shipped approximately 46 packages containing turtles from New York and New Jersey, which were routed through an international mail facility at JFK, to addresses in Hong Kong, including Tin’s.

Kang pleaded guilty to a money laundering charge after his extradition from Malaysia in 2019, and later was sentenced to 38 months in federal prison. Since Kang’s sentencing, law enforcement has continued to intercept packages addressed to Tin and others, court papers state.

If convicted, Tin faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for each smuggling count.

Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, U.S. Attorney E. Martin Estrada for the Central District of California and Assistant Director Edward Grace of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Office of Law Enforcement made the announcement.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating this case, with assistance from Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security Investigations.

Senior Trial Attorney Ryan Connors and Trial Attorney Lauren Steele of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Dominique Caamano for the Central District of California are prosecuting the case.

An indictment is merely an allegation. All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

Updated April 5, 2024

Press Release Number: 24-270