A Snohomish County man who participated in a wide ranging conspiracy to illegally traffic in protected reptile species was sentenced today to 12 months in prison and three years of supervised release, announced U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan. NATHANIEL SWANSON, 36, together with five co-defendants, conspired to smuggle domestic species out of the United States and into Hong Kong and illegally import Asian species into the United States. One of the co-defendants, TAK MING TSANG, 24, a Hong Kong citizen residing in the United States, was sentenced to six months in prison and two years of supervised release. A third co-defendant, CHEUK YIN KO, 25, will be sentenced on Friday, January 24, 2014. Most of the illegally trafficked species were protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Endangered Species Act. The estimated market value of the trafficked specimens was between $120,000 and $200,000. Many of the animals died during transport or shortly thereafter. At sentencing Chief U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman said, “It is important that the United States participate with its world partners in sending the message that these are serious offenses.”
“The cruelty of this scheme is evident in the pictures of the turtles wrapped in socks and taped to keep them still and hidden from inspectors and shipping agents,” said U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan. “Trafficking in wildlife is bad for the environment: it not only decimates endangered populations, it spreads invasive species and disease. I applaud the delivery service worker who first reported this scheme to law enforcement when she noticed a moving box and discovered a snake inside. But for that discovery, these traffickers might never have been caught.”
According to court filings, trafficking in protected species for commercial gain is an international problem, the full extent of which is unknown due in large part to the deceptive practices undertaken by SWANSON and his co-conspirators. While law enforcement authorities intercepted several shipments, most went undetected. Working with two foreign nationals residing in the United States, including his co-defendant TSANG, SWANSON illegally exported Eastern box turtles, North American wood turtles, and ornate box turtles to buyers located in Hong Kong. Additional domestic species exported by the co-conspirators included Gila monsters, Gulf Coast box turtles, and three-toed box turtles. SWANSON was also directly involved in importing several protected species directly from Hong Kong, including black-breasted leaf turtles, Chinese striped-necked turtles, big-headed turtles, fly river turtles, and an Arakan forest turtle. All of these species are protected under CITES. The Arakan forest turtle is critically endangered, having once been thought to be extinct. The illegal trafficking spanned a period of approximately four years.
Animals that survived and were seized by law enforcement have been cared for at local zoos and wildlife rehabilitation centers. As part of his sentence, SWANSON and his co-defendants will share in the cost of caring for the seized animals – about $28,500. The defendants forfeited any interest in the animals.
In asking for an 18 month prison sentence prosecutors argued that “Mr. Swanson and his co-conspirators engaged in a long-term scheme to illegally import and export numerous species of reptiles threatened with extinction and protected under an international convention and the laws of the United States. The actions of Mr. Swanson and his confederates can only be characterized as a concerted effort to profit from buying and selling contraband.”
On July 1, 2013, President Obama issued an Executive Order entitled Combating Wildlife Trafficking. As stated in the Order, “The survival of protected wildlife species such as elephants, rhinos, great apes, tigers, sharks, tuna, and turtles has beneficial economic, social, and environmental impacts that are important to all nations. Wildlife trafficking reduces those benefits while generating billions of dollars in illicit revenues each year, contributing to the illegal economy, fueling instability, and undermining security.” Globally, freshwater turtles and tortoises are being collected, traded and consumed in overwhelming numbers with no regard for sustainability of wild populations. Species are being used for food, pets, and traditional medicines.
The case was investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, with assistance from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Matthew Diggs and Jim Oesterle.