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San Francisco Man Sentenced
for Smuggling Rare Tortoises 

June 29, 2005

Wildlife agents say illegal trade is growing

Robert Chung Yip Kwong has been sentenced to 5 months in federal prison and five months home detention for convictions stemming from the illegal smuggling of three types of live tortoises, including endangered radiated tortoises from Madagascar.

Kwong, 40, is scheduled to report to prison on September 9, 2005, following his June 24 sentencing by U.S. District Judge Susan Ilston in San Francisco. Kwong pleaded guilty to three felony information charges of smuggling live tortoises and one misdemeanor count of violating the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Ilston ordered Kwong to pay the cost of electronic monitoring during his home detention.

The charges stem from the December 2003 seizure of several packages containing live Indian star tortoises, Burmese star tortoises and endangered radiated tortoises. The packages were addressed to Kwong under a fictitious name. Special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and inspectors with the U.S. Postal Service conducted the investigation.

"He was commercially smuggling internationally protected species and endangered species into the United States using express mail," said Special Agent Kenneth McCloud of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The charges against Kwong relate to 36 tortoises. Another 33 tortoises were seized from Kwong's house but not included in the charges.

Radiated tortoises have been protected under the federal Endangered Species Act since 1973. With their distinctive markings and dramatic colors, the tortoises, which can grow to 18 inches long, are popular among collectors. Baby radiated tortoises, such as those smuggled by Kwong, are valued at $1,250 each.

Besides being popular with pet collectors, radiated tortoises also are sought for professed medicinal purposes.

"They're not only being hit by the pet collection trade, they're being hit by poachers for the Asian medicinal market," McCloud said.

Burmese star tortoises are even more valuable, with adults selling for up to $7,000 apiece and juveniles worth about half that much. Although they are not listed under the ESA, Burmese star tortoises are extremely rare. They are found only in a national preserve in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

While it is not illegal to possess tortoises that were legally imported, smuggling them in without the required permits is against the law. And the illegal trade in tortoises is growing, Special Agent McCloud said.

"In the last few years we've seen a huge increase in the number of these species being smuggled into the United States," he said. "In the past three years alone, we've seized about 500 tortoises."

After agents seize the tortoises they are screened for disease and treated, if needed, and placed in zoos. The tortoises seized from the illegal shipments to Kwong were placed in zoos in Texas and New York.

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