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Reptile Smugglers Are Arrested, Authorities Say

A. G. Sulzberger | 3/19/2009 | The New York Times


In New York, 17 people were charged with 14 felonies as part of Operation Shellshock, a reptile smuggling bust by state environmental authorities.

The smugglers moved their goods across borders using secret compartments, a Maryland meat processing plant and the help of a corrupt Louisiana turtle farm. Their lucrative product: rattlesnakes, snapping turtles and salamanders.

This was the portrait of a trade in illegal reptiles and amphibians that New York State environmental authorities painted on Thursday, when the two-year undercover investigation called Operation Shellshock ended with criminal charges against 18 people. More charges were made by American and Canadian and officials in other states, the New York officials said.

The case had the familiar ring of a drug bust, but it was instead built in the unlikely world of herpetological shows and included charges against leaders at organizations like the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society, the Long Island Herpetological Society, and the pet Web site turtlesale.com (a Florida-based company facing New York charges).

“Our investigators began this operation with a simple question: Is there a commercial threat to our critical wildlife species?” Alexander B. Grannis, the commissioner of the State Department of Environmental Conservation, which conducted the investigation, said in a statement.

What they found was alarming, “A very lucrative illegal market for these creatures does exist, fostered by a strong, clandestine culture of people who want to exploit wildlife for illegal profit.”

In New York, 17 people were charged with 14 felonies, 11 misdemeanors and dozens of violations. Six people were charged in Pennsylvania, and one in Canada. The United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of New York is pursuing charges against the Maryland meat processor, Turtle Deluxe, and a Louisiana turtle farm that was not identified, the authorities said.

The authorities said that Emanuele Tesoro, a prison guard from Watertown, Ontario, drove 33 endangered Massasauga rattlesnakes hidden throughout his van in door compartments, behind speakers and in the trunk hatch, across the border to make a deal with undercover authorities in a parking lot in Niagara Falls, N.Y. To reduce suspicion his wife and children were also in the van as he crossed into the United States, said Capt. Michael Van Durme, of the environmental crimes investigation unit.

Two Long Island men, Adam C. Borisuk and Michael D. Brooks, sent tens of thousands of young snapping turtle hatchlings, collected from freshly laid nests of eggs from ponds and lakes throughout the area, to a turtle farm in Louisiana, Captain Van Durme said. The owner would then mix the illegally harvested “common snapping turtles” with the “alligator snapping turtles” he was licensed to farm, for export to China and eventually dinner plates, he said.

New York State law prohibits the illegal commercialization of wildlife, possession of protected species, and a 2006 law specifically protects all reptiles an amphibians.

The case began after an entire population of spotted turtles being studied by students at the University of Buffalo simply disappeared, said Captain Van Durme, who supervised the investigation. State environmental protection officials had learned of cases breaking up reptile smuggling rings in other states, and opened an undercover investigation. Officers made contacts while pretending to operate a wildlife photography booth at reptile shows, then moved to buying and selling animals as they built their case.

Buyers ranged from collectors who paid thousands of dollars to add a highlight to their collections with a hard-to-get specimen to the Chinese consumers with a well-known taste for snapping turtle meat, which can be had at roughly $1 a pound.

Frank Indiviglio, a former Staten Island Zoo and Bronx Zoo keeper, who has written and spoken extensively about reptiles, said while illegal trade is well-known, it did not reflect the reptile-loving community in general.

“The local herpetological societies are almost always conservation oriented,” he said.

   

 

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