A seized shipment of over 1,400 pieces of endangered sea turtle shell was laid bare on the floor of a Miami warehouse on Aug. 12, exposing a devastating enterprise in the illegal wildlife trade. The traffickers were using South Florida as a portal between the Caribbean and potential buyers in Asia.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized the 1,400 “scutes,” or shell sections—weighing 290 pounds (approx. 132 kg), and constituting one of the largest in-country seizures of endangered hawksbill and Green sea turtle shells ever—in November 2019.
The five boxes were unloaded onto the floor of a warehouse near Miami International Airport. The scutes were painted blue in an attempt to disguise them as plastic recycling; staffers washed the shells to reveal the beautiful colors masked under the chalky-blue paint.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimated that 100 turtles had been killed for the sake of the shipment.
Posting on Facebook the day after the sobering warehouse exposition, the USFWS explained, “Smugglers tried to pass the shells as ‘plastic recycle’ and illegally transport them from the Caribbean to Asia.
“Sea turtles are among the world’s most imperiled wildlife,” they continued. “Once abundant, populations in the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans have dwindled, largely due to habitat degradation and illegal wildlife trade.”
Centrally located among pockets of sea turtle habitation, Miami has become a gateway for illegal exportation of turtle shells to both Asia and Europe.
“Wildlife trafficking is a serious crime that impacts species at home and abroad,” USFWS Director Aurelia Skipwith told the Miami Herald. “Sea turtles are critical members of healthy ocean ecosystems. Unfortunately, they are also severely impacted by the illegal wildlife trade.”
Sea turtles are coveted by wildlife traffickers for their beautiful, versatile shells—used to make glasses’ frames, jewelry, and decorative items—their meat, and eggs.
The hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) is listed as “critically endangered” on the IUCN Red List; the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) is listed as “endangered.” The most prevalent threats to both turtles are oil and gas drilling, overfishing, ocean pollution, climate change, and human intervention, including illegal trafficking.
Both hawksbill and green sea turtles have been protected by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora, or CITES, since 1977, and trading of their shells is banned. However, neither U.S. Customs nor the USFWS had the authority to make an arrest in conjunction with the seizure of November 2019’s illegal shipment.
“Seizures can help deter wildlife trafficking by sending a clear message that wildlife crime isn’t welcome here in the U.S.,” Eva Lara, regional supervisor wildlife inspector at FWS’s Office of Law Enforcement told the news outlet. “Even though there were no prosecutions related to this case, it was still an important action that helped combat wildlife crime.”
The USFWS continues to work in collaboration with U.S. Customs in the hopes of locating more illegal shipments. “Ultimately,” Skipwith told WSVN, “our work will save animals so that future generations will be responsible and be able to see them in the wild, where they belong.”
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