Federal wildlife inspectors were randomly checking packages headed for China a month ago at a downtown Los Angeles post office when they were alarmed to find 170 turtles hidden in men's socks in a cardboard box with no return address.
But it was not just another creative attempt by global animal traffickers serving wealthy collectors in China willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for critically endangered turtles and tortoises.
Conservationists say the case involving 70 spotted turtles and 100 eastern box turtles confiscated on May 9 is a troubling example of how China's appetite for turtles has grown to include relatively common native species in the United States.
"This case signals a new and distressing trend: poachers in the U.S. willing to swap our own wildlife for a few dollars from Chinese collectors," Paul Gibbons, chief operating officer of the nonprofit Turtle Conservancy's Behler Chelonian Center in Ventura County, said.
"The Chinese have already driven their own species to near extinction, and now they are raiding ours."
Spotted turtles and box turtles fetch up to $1,000 each on the black market in China, where they are in high demand because their red and gold markings make them symbols of good fortune and status and, when eaten, sources of sexual prowess and cures for various ailments.
Craig Stanford, a biologist at USC, described collectors in China as "major predators on turtles around the world."
"In a perverse equation, the rarer a creature gets the more valuable it becomes," he said. "As a result, we see millionaires in China parking their wealth these days in investments such as wine, real estate, art and, unfortunately, turtles including our own garden variety box turtles."
The Chelonian Center received 38 of the spotted turtles confiscated as evidence in an ongoing investigation. They joined hundreds of other cold-blooded animals at the center, a secret sanctuary of paddocks and aquariums protected by surveillance cameras and electric wire in the foothills of Los Padres National Forest.
The center, which is certified by the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn., is not open to the public or listed in the phone book. The only visitors are turtle biologists from around the world.
Its primary mission is to maintain colonies of threatened and endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles including some of the estimated 350 ploughshare tortoises left on earth; golden coin turtles, which have been selling for up to $50,000 each since a poacher claimed that consuming extracts from the species could cure cancer, and Daphne, a 40-year-old female giant Galapagos tortoise looking for a mate.
"Wild turtle and tortoise populations are crashing around the world," said James Liu, a veterinarian at the center and an expert on illegal reptile trafficking. "And reasons for that include ultra-rich folks in China who these days collect, farm and show off turtles at events the size of auto trade shows."
"These turtle extravaganzas," he said, "feature dancers, 100-foot-tall video screens and long banquet tables serving turtle soup and chopped turtle meat fried, sauteed and smothered in sauce spiced with rare herbs."