Stuffed in pants, suitcases, and other places: the Illegal U.S. reptile trade remains alive and well

Turtles, like these sunning themselves by a pool of murky water, continue to be trafficking targets. © IFAW/P. BronsteinRecently, Kai Xu – also known as “Turtle Man” – was apprehended at the Canadian border. His crime? Attempting to smuggle 51 live turtles, carefully taped to his legs and hidden in his groin, through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel that connects the US to Canada. The incident was only part of Xu’s far more elaborate and lucrative operation, which involved smuggling thousands of reptiles all over the world, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Woodward.

Then, last Wednesday, only a few weeks after being stopped by Canadian officials, Xu drove a hired courier to Detroit Metropolitan Airport. His accomplice carried two suitcases, containing almost 1,000 turtles – valued at over $30,000 on the black market. Agents made the discovery while inspecting the bags, and both men were arrested and now face federal charges.

Read about one successful anti-crime campaign: Operation Cobra II’s arrests and wildlife seizures, including 10,000 turtles.

Sadly, these episodes are far from unusual, as the U.S. reptile trade is well-established and pervasive… not to mention profitable; some endangered turtles can fetch $1,800 each, and triple that in China according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

And turtles are just the tip of the reptile-trafficking iceberg. Reptiles comprised five of the top nine categories most commonly seized on export from the United States, according to an IFAW analysis of data obtained from the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Heavily smuggled reptiles include American alligators, pythons, caimans, crocodiles, and monitor lizards – many of which are critically endangered. And we’re not just a supplier nation; Americans illegally import endangered reptiles and amphibians from around the globe – for the pet trade, the fashion industry, even for “traditional” medicine.

At IFAW, we firmly believe that no animal should be treated as a commodity. Many species are facing extinction due to trafficking, simply because they are coveted as pets or food. IFAW is committed to protecting all wild animals from the black market, which threatens biodiversity and causes needless suffering to animals and humans alike. To learn more, read our Wildlife Trade Fact Sheet here,


Visit our web page to learn more about IFAW’s global efforts to fight wildlife crime.

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Elsayed Ahmed Mohamed, Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Dr. Joseph Okori
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Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Regional Director, Russia & CIS
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Faye Cuevas, Esq.
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Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
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Executive Vice President
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
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Pauline Verheij, Program Manager, Wildlife Crime
Program Manager, Wildlife Crime
Peter LaFontaine, Campaigns Manager, IFAW Washington, D.C.
Campaigns Manager, IFAW Washington, D.C.
Rikkert Reijnen, Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Country Representative, Germany
Country Representative, Germany
Staci McLennan, Director, EU Office
Director, EU Office
Tania McCrea-Steele, Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy