Oakland Gardens turtle smuggler pleads guilty to trafficking wildlife

Oakland Gardens turtle smuggler pleads guilty to trafficking wildlife
Courtesy of Tennessee Aquarium
By Mark Hallum

After getting busted last May for smuggling endangered turtles into Kennedy Airport, Hsien Lin Hsu of Oakland Gardens pleaded guilty in Brooklyn federal court Monday to violations of the Endangered Species Act and an international wildlife treaty.

According to his lawyer, John Wallenstein, Hsu was “well-known in the turtle world,” treated the animals well and “was very upset when the government confiscated them.”

According to the criminal complaint, Packages from Hong Kong — which were marked as “snacks” and addressed to Hsu — were intercepted by Fish and Wildlife Service agents at Kennedy Airport in May, according to the criminal complaint. Agents searched the packages and found a total of 42 protected and prohibited amphibians concealed in bags of noodles and candy, the document says.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District said experts from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the American Museum of Natural History identified the animals as yellow-margined Chinese box turtles, black-breasted leaf turtles, Reeves’ turtles, Indian roofed turtles, South American river turtles and Chinese big-headed turtles.

The turtles which Hsu was receiving are protected because they have a susceptibility to commercial exploitation through the illegal exotic pet trade, and also have a high nest-mortality rate, according to the criminal complaint unsealed in June.

Both federal law and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora protect these species. About 5,000 species of animals and 29,000 species of plants are protected under the convention and are categorized as either endangered, near endangerment or species which are not endangered but require proper permits to export.

In a controlled delivery made by law enforcement and postal service inspectors, the five parcels were accepted by Hsu at his Oakland Gardens home.

Federal agents executed a search warrant May 18 at Hsu’s home and seized an additional 135 live turtles which Herpetology experts from the Bronx Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society identified as 24 different protected species, many of them born in the wild.

At the time of the search, Hsu co-operated with law enforcement agents, explaining that he knew that a special permit was required to import turtles, and admitted to receiving packages from contacts in Hong Kong prior to the final bust, the complaint said. He reinforced these statements at his plea hearing on Monday.

Shippers in China had advised him to use a fake name on the packages so as not to get caught. Hsu, however, went with his real name, the complaint said.

A date has not been set for sentencing, but Wallenstien said 21 months is the most for this kind of offense.

“That is the upper guideline limit,”Wallenstein said, “but there is no mandatory jail time here, and the sentence is entirely up to the Judge. I intend to argue for a non jail sentence.”

Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhallum@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4564.