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Box turtles. Coral. These illegally trafficked animals still need a good home

Confiscated live animals are temporarily held in what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls their “live room” at an office building near Los Angeles International Airport, while authorities try to find them longer-term housing and specialized care.
Ryan Kellman
/
NPR
Confiscated live animals are temporarily held in what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls their “live room” at an office building near Los Angeles International Airport, while authorities try to find them longer-term housing and specialized care.

TORRANCE, Calif. — In the back of an office building, in a small room that smells like rotting strawberries, a criminal investigator watches his evidence crawl around on wood chips in five open plastic tanks.

The box turtles, native to eastern North America, were found at a nearby international mail facility in Los Angeles about a week prior, packaged in a series of boxes bound for Asia.

“These guys were being illegally exported,” said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) special agent, who asked to remain anonymous because of his undercover work. “Now it’s an ongoing investigation in terms of who shipped them.”

FWS Inspector Mac Elliot looks over a legal shipment while Braxton, a dog trained to smell heavily trafficked wildlife like reptiles and animal parts like ivory, enthusiastically does his job. Wildlife trafficking is one of the largest and most profitable crime sectors in the world. Estimates of its value range from $7-23 billion annually.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
/
NPR
FWS Inspector Mac Elliot looks over a legal shipment while Braxton, a dog trained to smell heavily trafficked wildlife like reptiles and animal parts like ivory, enthusiastically does his job. Wildlife trafficking is one of the largest and most profitable crime sectors in the world. Estimates of its value range from $7-23 billion annually.

The 40-some box turtles have a more immediate problem. They’re evidence of a crime and its victims. Distressed, possibly sick, and half a continent away from a home they’ll likely never see again, the turtles need specialized care and a long-term home.

Seized animals rarely get returned to the wild because it’s difficult to know where, specifically, they came from. They could carry disease.

“What to do with confiscated live animals has been a concern for as long as I’ve been a wildlife inspector because of the quantity, the care,” said Tamesha Woulard, a 36-year veteran of the FWS Office of Law Enforcement. “What happens after they’re here?"

Last year, the FWS and the Association for Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) launched a pilot project aimed at answering that question in Southern California. With wildlife trafficking surging globally, the organizations are now in talks to expand the program to other parts of the country.

“We’re reacting to a crisis,” said Sara Walker, senior advisor on wildlife trafficking at AZA. “It doesn’t do anything to actually reduce demand.”

Some of the confiscated turtles at the FWS office have mottled splotches on their shells, a sign of potential sickness. <br>The seized shipment of turtles included a mix of Eastern Box Turtles, native to the eastern U.S., and Yucatan Box Turtles, native to Mexico. The Yucatan Box Turtles have pale white heads.  <br>
Ryan Kellman / NPR
/
NPR
Some of the confiscated turtles at the FWS office have mottled splotches on their shells, a sign of potential sickness. 
The seized shipment of turtles included a mix of Eastern Box Turtles, native to the eastern U.S., and Yucatan Box Turtles, native to Mexico. The Yucatan Box Turtles have pale white heads.  

The illegal wildlife trade is surging 

Wildlife trafficking is one of the largest and most profitable crime sectors in the world. Estimates of its value range from $7 billion to $23 billion annually. A recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that more than 4,000 species are being targeted by traffickers globally, to be sold as food, medicine, ornaments or pets. The crimes are causing “untold harm to nature,” said Ghada Waly, the office’s executive director, jeopardizing “livelihoods, public health, good governance and our planet’s ability to fight climate change.”

An analysis by Moody’s Analytics that used government data from around the world found that from 2018-2021, wildlife trafficking surged 150% globally.

The latest available data from the FWS shows that from 2015-2019, nearly 50,000 live plants and animals were seized or abandoned in the U.S. over that four year period — an average of about 27 individuals per day.

Woulard said the number is definitely higher today.

“To me, what was highlighted after COVID is that people will try to make money using a lot of different methods,” she said. “E-commerce has exploded and there are people that are making pets out of animals that were never pets before.”

Squirrels, skunks, scorpions and snakes.

“But then I started finding ants,” Woulard said. “Ants? Really?”

Top and bottom left: Inspectors Mac Elliott and Ali Ventura look through a shipment. While Inspector Ray Hernandez takes a moment to instruct Braxton (bottom left). Seized animals rarely get returned to the wild because it’s difficult to know where, specifically, they came from. They could also carry disease.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
/
NPR
Top and bottom left: Inspectors Mac Elliott and Ali Ventura look through a shipment. While Inspector Ray Hernandez takes a moment to instruct Braxton (bottom left). Seized animals rarely get returned to the wild because it’s difficult to know where, specifically, they came from. They could also carry disease.

Illegal trade isn’t always nefarious, she said. Well-meaning pet enthusiasts don’t always know they’re purchasing something that was collected or shipped illegally. Importers don’t always mean to ship something that’s not allowed. Southern California is a hotspot for the legal import of tropical fish and corals, which can be hard to properly identify.

“There is a legal trade,” Woulard said. “What we do is we facilitate the legal trade and we intercept the illegal trade.”

When a live animal is seized by authorities, regardless of the reason, the authorities assume responsibility for the animal and its well-being.

At the FWS office in Torrance, there’s a room with saltwater tanks to house seized fish, corals and clams. The small room occupied by the 40 scurrying box turtles, a few doors down, has housed everything from rare birds to monkey-tailed skinks — “large lizards that don’t play well with each other,” Woulard said.

Their job is to keep the animals alive, she said. “Long enough for them to get to a place with better care.”

Aquatic species need specific water temperatures, pressure and chemistry. Specialized care at the Aquarium of the Pacific is often given by volunteers like Shaw Droker.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
/
NPR
Aquatic species need specific water temperatures, pressure and chemistry. Specialized care at the Aquarium of the Pacific is often given by volunteers like Shaw Droker.

A new approach 

In the nine months since the Wildlife Confiscations Network launched, participants said it’s helped streamline the process of getting animals triaged and placed in long-term care facilities.

It’s also helped law enforcement officers “who are being absolutely inundated with live animals being smuggled,” said Walker, with the AZA.

Since August of last year, the network has helped place more than 1,300 animals at zoos, aquariums and conservancies in the region. The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach has taken in 500 individual corals and clams in the last six months, said Nate Jaros, senior curator of fishes and invertebrates at the aquarium.

Left: The turtle pictured here was confiscated and has been living at the aquarium since the 1990’s. Right: Tropical corals are very popular with aquariasts in the U.S. They’re often confiscated by authorities because they’re misidentified.
Ryan Kellman / Ryan Kellman
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Ryan Kellman
Left: The turtle pictured here was confiscated and has been living at the aquarium since the 1990’s. Right: Tropical corals are very popular with aquariasts in the U.S. They’re often confiscated by authorities because they’re misidentified.

“We really don’t harvest any wild coral for this,” he said, pointing to a massive display tank with schools of darting fish and colorful corals. “Mostly in-house propagation and confiscations have been enough to fulfill our coral exhibit needs.”

Animals that can’t be placed are likely to be euthanized. Fortunately, Walker said, since the Wildlife Confiscations Network launched in October that hasn’t happened yet. “But it’s going to happen in the future, I’m sure,” she said. “We’re just running out of space.”

Efforts are underway to launch similar networks in other parts of the country, Walker said, with the goal of creating a national network. The effort is “obviously a reactive initiative,” she said. “We’re reacting to a crisis. It doesn’t do anything to actually reduce demand.”

When animal care providers receive confiscated animals, they’re often malnourished, sick and distressed. Each animal is inspected and triaged to give it specific care. <br>
Ryan Kellman / NPR
/
NPR
When animal care providers receive confiscated animals, they’re often malnourished, sick and distressed. Each animal is inspected and triaged to give it specific care. 

American turtles are increasingly part of the illicit trade

For some of the seized box turtles, temporarily housed at the Fish and Wildlife Service office, their long-term home is likely to be a couple hours drive north, at The Turtle Conservancy in Ojai, Calif.

Since 2017, the conservancy, which is closed to the public, has taken in about 500 confiscated turtles, including about 100 box turtles in just the last year.

Left: A Ploughshare Tortoise (center), native to Madagascar, is critically endangered due to poaching from the pet trade. Their rareness adds to their value on the illegal market. For poachers, Liu said, “It’s like finding a gold brick on the ground.” Right: Due to their golden coloration and friendly personalities, the Radiated Tortoise is one of the most heavily poached animals in the world, Liu said. <br>
Ryan Kellman / NPR
/
NPR
Left: A Ploughshare Tortoise (center), native to Madagascar, is critically endangered due to poaching from the pet trade. Their rareness adds to their value on the illegal market. For poachers, Liu said, “It’s like finding a gold brick on the ground.” Right: Due to their golden coloration and friendly personalities, the Radiated Tortoise is one of the most heavily poached animals in the world, Liu said. 

The surge in American turtles being illegally collected and trafficked is part of a broader trend, said James Liu, director and head veterinarian at the facility.

“Now that there’s a lot more wealth in these Asian countries that have always liked turtles — they’ve always valued them as pets, as traditional medicine, as food — they now have the means to buy them from other countries,” he said.

Abby Roeser (left) and Lani Yoo (right), of The Turtle Conservancy, weigh and inspect the confiscated turtles they’ve taken in daily to make sure they’re recovering from disease and malnutrition.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
/
NPR
Abby Roeser (left) and Lani Yoo (right), of The Turtle Conservancy, weigh and inspect the confiscated turtles they’ve taken in daily to make sure they’re recovering from disease and malnutrition.

The U.S. has the greatest turtle biodiversity in the world. That richness, coupled with steep declines in Asian turtle populations — what conservationists have dubbed the Asian turtle crisis — and economic hardships in the U.S. following the COVID-19 pandemic, “have created this perfect storm where now Americans are the people who are poaching and sending them to China,” Liu said.

A single box turtle can be sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on its coloration, wildlife officials said.

<em>The patterns on box turtle shells are meant to emulate dappled light coming through trees to help the animals camouflage in their native forests of eastern North America. Their bright coloration also makes them more desirable for the pet trade. </em><br>
Ryan Kellman / NPR
/
NPR
The patterns on box turtle shells are meant to emulate dappled light coming through trees to help the animals camouflage in their native forests of eastern North America. Their bright coloration also makes them more desirable for the pet trade. 

In the conservancy’s quarantine room, where new arrivals are kept for 60 days to be screened for disease and to be nursed back to health, Liu wiped the shell of a male box turtle with a wet rag. Its gleaming shell looks like a Rorschach test of ink black and golden orange.

The conservancy’s staff measured the turtle’s weight and moved on to the other confiscated turtles they had taken in. Their tanks run the length of a wall, stacked three high.

“It's a quarantine, but really it's an evidence locker,” Liu said. “Instead of cocaine and other contraband, it's living creatures. It's native U.S. turtles.”
Copyright 2024 NPR

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Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
Ryan Kellman is a producer and visual reporter for NPR's science desk. Kellman joined the desk in 2014. In his first months on the job, he worked on NPR's Peabody Award-winning coverage of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. He has won several other notable awards for his work: He is a Fulbright Grant recipient, he has received a John Collier Award in Documentary Photography, and he has several first place wins in the WHNPA's Eyes of History Awards. He holds a master's degree from Ohio University's School of Visual Communication and a B.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute.
Rachel Carlson
Rachel Carlson (she/her) is a production assistant at Short Wave, NPR's science podcast. She gets to do a bit of everything: researching, sourcing, writing, fact-checking and cutting episodes.