Federal authorities have charged a Kentucky man with illegally trafficking in turtles, which are valued as pets in China.
Christopher Cool, of Jackson County, allegedly told a friend he was making big money selling turtles.
“I sell box turtles to rich Chinese people in New York for a hundred bucks EACH and up . . . and I have an endless supply of them here . . . .” Cool wrote to a friend on social media in July 2020, according to an affidavit in the case.
Jimmy Barna, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, swore out a complaint charging Cool with wildlife trafficking in violation of federal law and conspiracy.
Barna said in his sworn statement that that case against Cool began in July 2020 with a tip that Cool was illegally buying turtles from “multiple” people.
Clint Cox, an officer with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, checked on the tip and found 246 Eastern Box Turtles at Cool’s house, Barna said.
The turtles fall under a treaty that protects fish, wildlife and plants that could be imperiled by the demands of the international market. They can’t be imported or exported in the U.S. without the approval of federal wildlife authorities, according to the affidavit.
Barna said when he went to Cool’s house the next day, he saw more than 200 Eastern Box Turtles in a screened-in area of the house with water on the floor, as well as shipping supplies.
Cool said he had been in the reptile trade for more than 20 years, but got started selling large amounts of eastern box turtles after he posted a picture of one on a turtle group’s Facebook page and a man offered him $150 for it, according to the affidavit.
Cool said he caught the turtles in the wild himself at first, but as two buyers stepped up their orders he started having to pay people to catch turtles for him.
Cool said he was routinely shipping 30 to 60 turtles at a time to the two buyers, whom he met online and believed to be Asian men in the New York City area, Barna said.
The two paid him through money orders or PayPal, Cool said.
Barna calculated from shipping and payment records that Cool sent a total of 599 turtles to his two primary buyers between July 2019 and July 2020, at a price of $62,219, plus 70 other turtles to a buyer in Pennsylvania for $7,000, according to the affidavit.
At their first meeting, Cool had said he didn’t know it was illegal to sell Eastern Box Turtles, but messages between Cool and others indicated he did understand it was illegal, Barna said.
Cool said he wanted to cooperate with authorities, but told Barna in August 2020 that his two main buyers had blocked him on Facebook and that he was not going to sell turtles any longer, Barna said.
However, in June, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources got an anonymous tip that Cool was buying turtles again and transporting them out of state in his Chevrolet Tahoe.
In July, the owner of an automotive repair shop in West Virginia where Cool had had his SUV serviced told wildlife authorities they had seen an estimated 100 to 200 eastern box turtles in the vehicle.
The owner said that while employees replaced the water pump on Cool’s SUV, Cool took plastic bins of turtles out of the vehicle, cleaned the turtles, showed them to employees and said he was on his way to Pennsylvania to sell them to a “China man” from Brooklyn who shipped them out of the country, Barna said in his affidavit.
Cool told employees at the shop he was making about two trips a month to Pennsylvania to meet the buyer, Barna said.
Using the phone number Cool gave the repair shop, Barna, posing as a turtle seller, texted Cool a photo of eight turtles and asked how much they were worth.
Cool texted back “$80,” then a few days later said he would pay $15 each for adult females, Barna said.
Barna swore out the complaint against Cool Sept. 10. Cool was scheduled for an initial appearance in U.S. District Court in London Thursday.
Eastern Box Turtles are not considered endangered on a national level, but some states list them as a species of concern, and Maine considers them endangered, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Habitat loss and collection for the pet market are factors in the decline of turtle populations, according to the federation.
Eastern Box Turtles are protected from commercial trade in every state in which they naturally occur, but with their colorful markings, they are valued in the pet trade, with China and Taiwan as particular destinations, said Jordan Gray, a biologist with the South Carolina-based Turtle Survival Alliance.
The turtle is increasingly a species of concern for conservationists, Gray said.
Taking turtles from the wild degrades natural heritage and can hurt the viability of particular turtle populations, Gray said.
“They are taking this ecologically valuable animal out of the wild population,” Gray said of traffickers. “You’re significantly increasing that population’s trajectory toward extinction.”