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
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
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.