A man accused of smuggling dozens of live turtles and tortoises from Japan into the US by concealing them in snack food boxes was sentenced Monday to 21 months in prison and fined more than $18,000.
Atsushi Yamagami, 39, and Norihide Ushirozako, both from the central-western Japanese city of Osaka, were arrested in January 2011 at Los Angeles International Airport as part of an undercover federal investigation known as Operation Flying Turtle, the Associated Press reports.
Fifty-five turtles and tortoises were found in snack food boxes in a suitcase. Authorities believe Yamagami and other couriers took more than 40 trips to and from the US between 2004 and 2011, selling or trading the reptiles for snakes, turtles and tortoises native to North America which were then smuggled to Japan for resale.
US District Judge George H. King in Los Angeles said that Yagami had a “leadership role” in the scheme and paid others for their involvement, The Contra Costa Times reports.
According to Los Angeles Weekly, the reptiles were protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) treaty, meaning that they can only be imported with a permit. The 55 reptiles seized in the Yamagami case were donated to educational institutes throughout the Southland, prosecutors said.