Smuggled baby turtles intended for Iowa Museum intercepted at Anchorage airport

Smuggled baby turtles intended for Iowa Museum intercepted at Anchorage airport

(File Photo) Terry VanDeWalle, a senior biologist with Stantec, shows a two-week old Blanding’s turtles at the Stantec office on Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, in Independence. The turtles were hatched at Stantec from eggs laid by females from the Rock Island Preserve in northeast Cedar Rapids, and will be placed at the preserve this spring as part of an effort to add to the threatened Blanding’s turtle population there. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Inspectors with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service made an unusual discovery at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in September: more than 200 live baby turtles.

Most of the turtles belonged to species that are protected from illegal poaching and export, according to Fish and Wildlife officials. The reptiles were stuffed into boots, hidden away inside luggage bound for China, according to the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, one of the facilities to receive some of the animals. Most of the turtles remain at the Anchorage Museum, where they are being cared for until federal officials find homes for them.

Sixteen turtles have already been sent to Iowa, including North American wood turtles, Blanding’s turtles, and loggerhead musk turtles, according to NMRMA’s director of living collections, Andy Allison. Allison said his museum is working with other animal sanctuaries to take in more of the turtles.

“In Iowa, Blanding’s turtles and wood turtles are threatened because of habitat issues like wetland draining and pollution,” Allison said.

Allison said that the turtles were all hatchlings, most just a few inches long.

“Some of turtles still had umbilical scar on underside of shell, that’s a sign of being just a few weeks old.”

Allison said the turtles were headed to China to be grown large enough to be sold as pets or as dinner. China has a huge appetite for turtles (figuratively and literally). Hard-shelled varieties are used for ancient medicinal formulas aimed at alleviating kidney problems. The meat from turtles is sold for soups. After centuries of overharvesting, Asian turtle species are hard to find, making American varieties more desirable and increasing the illegal turtle trade, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which estimates that more than 2 million American turtles are illegally exported to China each year.

While local Fish and Wildlife officials did not want to comment about the specifics of the Anchorage find, citing the ongoing nature of their investigation, they did confirm that the discovery of so many animals in one location is rare. And that made for some hurried phone calls around Anchorage to see who could, at least temporarily, care for the baby turtles.

“I was desperate when we found those, and I started making phone calls,” Fish and Wildlife’s Supervisory Wildlife Inspector Chris Andrews said. “And I called the Anchorage Museum and asked if they were sure they could handle them all, and they said, ‘it’s the right thing to do; bring them over.’”

Andrews would not say how many turtles remained at the Anchorage Museum. Museum officials referred all inquiries about the animals back to the Fish and Wildlife Service.