A Windsor, Ontario, man was arrested Wednesday by border patrol agents after he allegedly tried to smuggle more than 50 turtles hidden in his underpants and strapped elsewhere to his body into the United States.
Kai Xu was detained at the Detroit-Windsor border after authorities “noticed irregularly shaped bulges under (his) sweatpants on both his legs,” The Detroit News reports. Earlier Wednesday, Xu and his suspected partner, Lihua Lin, of Toronto, were arrested after Lin allegedly tried to smuggle 200 turtles in his luggage on a flight to Shanghai, China.
The species Xu concealed in his pants included several North American species, including Eastern box turtles, diamondback Terrapins, endangered spotted turtles and red-eared sliders, which are considered one of the world’s worst invasive species. One of them would have fetched up to $800 in the illegal pet trade.
The incident at the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel is the latest of several bizarre smuggling attempts to feed the voracious appetite for the reptiles worldwide. Some are destined for the dinner table, but others are smuggled as pets.
“You see some extreme cases in which people try to smuggle things. Although this sounds really extreme, we see cases like this across the nation,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection Melissa Maraj told The Detroit News. “People use a lot of ingenuity and creativity. …”
At the Guangzhou International Airport in China earlier this year, a passenger traveling to Beijing tried to smuggle a turtle in a Kentucky Fried Chicken sandwich, The Telegraph said.
In March, nearly 300 turtles were confiscated in Bangkok just weeks after two major tortoise and freshwater turtle seizures in Asia, according to Annamiticus, an educational nonprofit group working to stop the economic exploitation of endangered species.
Earlier this month, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official told the The (Baton Rouge, LA) Advocate wildlife trafficking is as lucrative as the international drug trade, but significantly less risky.
“Wildlife trafficking is a high-profit, low-risk crime,” said Ed Grace, deputy assistant director for law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “You can make as much money dealing in illegal wildlife species as you can dealing in arms and heroin and cocaine, but your chances of going to jail or being caught are less.”
Grace made his comments after a mail carrier implicated in an international turtle-smuggling ring turned state’s evidence against a Hong Kong reptile buyer and lured him into a sting operation.
Conservationists warn that as the illegal movement of turtles and tortoises skyrockets, little is done to track down “significant traders or kingpins in the tortoise and turtle racket,” Chris Shepherd of Wildlife trade protection group Traffic told The Huffington Post last November after 500 turtles were confiscated at an airport in Thailand.
Xu’s level of alleged involvement in illegal turtle and tortoise trafficking is not clear, but he was arraigned Thursday in U.S. District Court on charges of smuggling, illegal trading and exporting – crimes that could land him in a federal penitentiary for a decade if he’s convicted. A native of China, he is a Canadian citizen and an engineering student at University of Waterloo. He will appear at a bond hearing on Friday.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials began tailing Xu on Aug. 5 after a tipster at a Detroit postal office alerted them to a 7-pound package marked “live fish keep cool” that had arrived for Xu.
They reportedly watched him after transfer the contents of the package into clear plastic bags in the back of his Ford Escape, then walk across a parking lot at Hoover Street south of Eight Mile in northeast Detroit with the bags and scissors. He walked between two U.S. Postal Service tractor trailers, the reappeared about 10 minutes later without the bag.
That’s when another agent “noticed irregularly shaped bulges under Xu’s sweatpants on both his legs,” Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Kenneth Adams wrote in the criminal complaint filed in federal court.
The federal agents followed Xu to the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, and border control agents stopped his vehicle for a secondary inspection after he had entered Canada. That’s when “Xu was found to have 51 live turtles strapped to his person and 10 hidden between his legs,” Adams wrote.
It’s not clear what charges Lin faces.