Two flight attendants for a Chinese airline face possible federal prison time Monday when sentenced for attempting to smuggle dozens of spotted and box turtles in carry-on bags from Los Angeles to China.

Chinese nationals Huaqian Qu and Renfeng Gao pleaded guilty last month in downtown Los Angeles to a federal conspiracy charge, which carries a possible penalty of up to five years behind bars, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Prosecutors have recommended a 10-month term for each defendant, partly based on “abuse of trust” as China Eastern Airlines crew members. Defense attorneys are pushing for probationary sentences with the condition that the defendants return immediately to China.

The smuggling attempt left two of the 45 reptiles dead and two others sick, prosecutors wrote in sentencing papers that pointed out the cruelty to animals of such schemes.

Profit appeared to be the motive. The defendants paid about $200 per animal in the Los Angeles area and expected to pocket as much as $41,000 for the lot in Asia, where there is a “robust” market for turtle species native to the United States, court papers show. Spotted turtles, for example, are highly prized in China based upon the number of spots on their shells, experts said in court documents.

Qu and Gao were arrested at Los Angeles International Airport with 10 protected spotted turtles and 14 box turtles hidden in pillowcases and plastic bags packed in Qu’s China Eastern work luggage. Gao carried 21 spotted turtles in his carry-on bag for the 13-hour flight to Shanghai.

Prosecutors said they suspect Qu and Gao of having successfully run turtles out of LAX on multiple occasions previously. But on May 12, a random X-ray luggage check conducted by the Transportation Security Administration detected “unusual round objects” in Qu’s carry-on bags during a routine inspection, according to an affidavit filed in the case.

The TSA inspector who flagged the luggage said he recognized that the bags contained turtles, “based on his enthusiasm for turtles as a teenager,” the document states.

Such turtles are protected by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora — known as CITES. The agreement regulates international trade in over 36,000 species of plants and animals, including their products and derivatives. CITES uses a permit system to ensure that trade in listed species is legal and traceable.

“Neither defendant … nor anyone else had obtained the required export permit for these CITES-protected turtles or filed a declaration for exporting these animals,” court documents said.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.