Saving rare and endangered turtles in South Carolina
The death of Freddie “Snakeman” Herman was unsettling enough for criminal investigators when they arrived at his ramshackle mobile home on a steamy morning last summer.
Herman’s body lay on the ground, lifeless from gunshot wounds. Flies swarmed in the yard, leaving little doubt Herman had been dead for hours.
But as they surveyed the murder scene in Chesterfield County, investigators learned that Herman was more than the victim of a domestic homicide. He was an international wildlife dealer they knew nothing about in a state where black market animal sales are quietly growing.
Snakes writhed in Herman’s trailer and turtles splashed in backyard holding ponds, apparently awaiting shipment. On Herman’s computer, state natural resources investigators found electronic messages with mysterious wildlife brokers, as well as $76,000 in an account that they believe was filled with the proceeds of animal sales.
The discovery provided a new window into South Carolina’s illicit and loosely regulated wildlife trade, a shadowy but lucrative industry that is imperiling native species, threatening to spread disease and attracting crooks to the Palmetto State.
And it’s all happening in a state with limited ability to deal with the problem.
Wild animals, particularly reptiles, are being cruelly packaged in tiny cartons and shipped overseas, many dying en route because they have no food or water. Other animals collected for sale in South Carolina are beginning to dwindle in their native environments, which could upset the balance of nature in swamps and woodlands across the state.
Reptiles, including dangerous snakes and rare turtles, often sought as food or exotic pets, are the major concern. But state investigators also are worried about the sale of disease-carrying hogs and deer, rare fish, and black bear parts such as gallbladders and paws.
“It’s significant,’’ state wildlife agency spokesman Robert McCullough said of the illegal and loosely regulated wildlife trade. “There is enough going on out there to cause us concern.’’
Some dealers are trading native wildlife without getting caught because the state lacks officers. In Herman’s case, state investigators say they were stunned to learn the extent of his operation in Chesterfield County.
Other dealers are legally selling animals, such as highly venomous snakes, that could not be easily sold in other states with stricter wildlife laws.
A recent S.C. Department of Natural Resources report said the agency is seeing an increase in people from other states bringing reptiles to South Carolina, then exporting them, because of the state’s limited wildlife laws. The agency also is seeing evidence that more people are trapping turtles and other reptiles for resale to other states, the report said.
It’s a significant enough issue that the DNR has assigned a handful of undercover agents to investigate illicit wildlife trading, even as state policymakers consider ways to strengthen minimal wildlife laws and provide more staff members to catch rogue animal dealers.
Wildlife traffickers get involved in the business because of the world’s insatiable demand for animals and the profits dealers can make when they sell wildlife. In a single year, some dealers have reportedly made $100,000 selling turtles, snakes and other reptiles.
Deadly snakes bound for SC
Unlike in many states, it’s legal in South Carolina to buy a venomous cobra at a wildlife show or collect hundreds of turtles for potential sale to pet traders in Asia. It’s legal to buy a camel or porcupine at an animal auction with relatively few restrictions. And it’s legal for a handful of people to harvest rare baby eels, which can fetch $2,000 per pound in Asia.
Chad Welch, an investigator with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said South Carolina’s lack of wildlife trading laws sometimes encourages illicit importing of wildlife into Georgia, where restrictions on reptile sales are stronger.
“It’s easier to acquire wild animals when you can take a couple of hours’ drive to South Carolina, buy them and bring them right back, ’’ he said.
Recently, a Florida man with a criminal record received permission from Georgia authorities to import 220 highly venomous snakes from Africa through the Atlanta airport — if he agreed to ship them to South Carolina within 24 hours after they landed. The shipment, coming from a contact in North Ghana, included spitting cobras and Gaboon vipers, toxic snakes popular in the reptile trade. The man planned to sell them here.
In another recently publicized case, a major player in an international turtle-trafficking scheme pleaded guilty in federal court to wildlife charges after admitting he was shipping and receiving highly endangered turtles from his home in South Carolina. State authorities say loopholes in state wildlife laws made it easier for him to operate out of his house in Holly Hill.
According to an internal Department of Natural Resources report, South Carolina is one of five states with few or no laws regulating the ownership and sale of reptiles. The report says wildlife traders are slippery, well-connected and hard to catch.
“Many of the exporters operate in multiple states,’’ says the DNR report. “They will set up multiple residences or change residences often in states with lax reptile laws. They have a network of collectors who collect with or for them to fulfill orders. They communicate better than we do.’’
According to the DNR’s internal report, the Herman investigation revealed new ways that wildlife traders communicate and how they are paid for selling animals on the black market.
The DNR, for instance, says Herman was using an internet chatroom for video game enthusiasts to communicate with a wildlife buyer. Correspondence found on Herman’s computer shows that he was discussing the price of reptiles and how they could be exported to Europe.
“In Germany and France, they pay $800 to $1,200 per pair,’’ the chatroom note said. In the five months prior to his death, Herman received at least 11 Western Union payments from Hong Kong totaling $19,000, according to information the DNR obtained through the investigation. The agency said he was known at a Florence mailing center for regularly shipping packages filled with small animals.
A DNR informant, who asked not be named because he deals with wildlife traffickers, said he routinely gets text messages from Asian buyers seeking turtles.
In a string of texts obtained by The State newspaper, a buyer said he wanted 10 turtles shipped through Chicago, where he had friends. The potential buyer at one point suggested having the turtles shipped through Massachusetts and Florida, but the informant said “No, lol, they will put you in jail’’ in the Sunshine State, according to the string of texts.
Weak state laws in South Carolina encourage the growth of illegal dealing by making it easier for people to amass large numbers of animals for sale on the black market.
That’s particularly true with reptiles. While the state restricts the export of many types of turtles, the law doesn’t restrict people from owning as many of those species as they want, said Will Dillman, an agency reptile biologist and assistant wildlife chief.
Some out-of-state turtle trappers bring their catch to South Carolina and keep animals here until they can resell them to other countries — a practice called “turtle laundering.’’ Turtles are important to the environment because they spread seeds that lead to plant growth and make dens that can be used by other animals. They also are vital to keeping ponds clean because they scavenge for dead fish and other animals in the water.
Many of the wildlife cases made in South Carolina are brought by the federal government, which has more consistent and stricter laws than states do. But federal prosecutors have more than their share of cases that take a higher priority than wildlife crimes.
Some counties and cities in South Carolina, including the city of Columbia and Richland County, have exotic pet laws that limit venomous snake ownership and sales. But others do not. That allows wildlife shows to set up shop in counties like Lexington and sell venomous reptiles.
“We have a patchwork of different state laws on some species,’’ said Iris Ho, a senior wildlife policy specialist with the Humane Society International. “Something could be protected in one state, but not in another, like South Carolina.’’
Law enforcement authorities have said some restrictions are needed because drug dealers sometimes also trade in wildlife. In some cases, when officers show up for a drug bust, they have run into dangerous reptiles, authorities say.
Some legitimate wildlife dealers say they could support stricter state oversight of some types of wildlife dealing to weed out the shady businesses that give their industry a bad name.
“There are a lot of weird people importing stuff they ain’t supposed to be importing,’’ wildlife dealer Jonathan McMillan said during a break in a June 9 Repticon wildlife show at the Greenville Shrine Club. “They’re out catching things just to catch them and they are shipping stuff out that is not supposed to be shipped out of the country. There are a couple of bad apples.’’
Ashtyn Rance, the dealer with permission to import African snakes to South Carolina, said concerns about the wildlife trade are overblown. States like South Carolina have looser laws that allow businesses to operate without hassle, he said. In contrast, wildlife laws in Florida are so strict that they have allowed authorities to harass him, said Rance, who has a string of wildlife-related arrests in Florida.
“There are rapists and murderers and drug traffickers’’ that deserve a high priority for prosecution, Rance said. “Yet they want to come after some (expletive) animals. They have nothing better to do?’’
Tightening South Carolina’s wildlife laws, including for trafficking, is a tough sell in the Legislature because lawmakers usually have other priorities, said Steve Bennett, a retired DNR reptile biologist involved with past efforts to strengthen laws. South Carolina is one of the few states that require the Legislature, rather than a natural resources agency, to set virtually all wildlife rules, he said.
Bear paws on the black market
South Carolina’s issues with wildlife trafficking are a piece of a global problem that generates up to $20 billion in sales annually, according to the Humane Society International. Everything from elephant tusks to turtle meat can be found on the international black market.
Reptiles are the biggest wildlife commodity being moved illegally in the Southeast, largely because the area has such a rich diversity of the animals — and many of them, like turtles, are easy to catch, experts say.
Depending on the species, a single turtle can fetch upwards of $10,000 on the black market in Asia. Rattlesnakes from South Carolina can easily sell for $200 in places like New York, where collectors seek exotic animals, according to the S.C DNR.
That translates to a nice income for some traders. In one case, a Holly Hill man with an extensive criminal record from wildlife trading earned more than $100,000 one year, according to a neighbor and law enforcement authorities.
Even people not involved in illegal wildlife trafficking say it’s common knowledge that selling reptiles is lucrative.
“It’s something everybody knows you can make good money on,’’ said Daniel Bibby, an Orangeburg County resident who lives next door to Steven Baker, a wildlife trader with a history of violations.
Some species that once were nearly worthless have soared to thousands of dollars apiece, only to fall again once the thrill of owning that species has waned, said Jordan Gray, a spokesman for the Turtle Survival Alliance, an international reptile protection group headquartered in Charleston.
“The way turtles and tortoises go, it’s almost like clothing purchases for a season,’’ Gray said. “You see these fads.’’
Black bear parts, such as skins, gallbladders and paws, also are highly sought after in some Asian countries for traditional medicines or as souvenirs. A bear gallbladder will reportedly sell for up to $3,000 in China, according to The Los Angeles Times.
In South Carolina, where bear hunting is legal, the DNR recently ticketed men in North Augusta and Spartanburg for trying to deal other bear parts.
In one of the cases, a suspect was trying to sell a bear skin, with the claws attached, for about $1,800, a law enforcement source said. After he was ticketed, the man suspected of trying to sell the bear skin said “‘Thanks,’ then three days later, he had posted it up for sale again,’’ the law enforcement source told The State.
The other bear case included the sale of skulls, claws and other parts, which were offered for sale for about $10,500, according to the DNR.
Illegally harvesting baby eels for sale to Asia landed three S.C. men in hot water two years ago after federal investigators discovered they had trafficked more than $740,000 worth of the eels. All three pleaded guilty to violating the Lacey Act, a federal law that governs illegal wildlife trafficking. South Carolina grants 10 permits for people to harvest the little eels, making any other harvest illegal.
Hogs, deer and disease
While S.C. law offers few limits on the sale of dangerous snakes and many types of reptiles, the state does have stronger laws to control the trade in other species, such as wild hogs and deer, according to the DNR. The Legislature also recently banned the ownership and sale of big exotic cats, such as African lions and American cougars, as well as chimpanzees and non-native bears.
But it’s not hard to break state laws and get away with it because of limited state resources, DNR spokesman McCullough said.
Trucks filled with hogs sometimes sneak across the state line because South Carolina doesn’t have enough wildlife officers to stop the movement, McCullough and DNR big game coordinator Charles Ruth said. The pigs are usually headed to hunting preserves to give shooters a better chance at bagging a hog. Unfortunately, some of the pigs escape and are adding to the state’s wild hog problem, according to the DNR.
““You’d think with an invasive species like this, we’d already have plenty,’’ McCullough said. “But people bring hogs in because somebody wants them to hunt.’’
Hogs can carry brucellosis, a disease that not only makes animals sick but can infect people and give them fevers. Imported deer sometimes carry chronic wasting disease, an ailment that can sicken native deer populations in a state where hunting is popular. Reptiles often carry salmonella, an illness that causes violent stomach ailments in people.
The agency needs more than 300 officers, but today has 265, McCullough said. Its special investigative unit has six agents who also investigate wildlife crimes aside from illegal trading.
Sometimes, the DNR does catch people trying to bring in hogs. Last fall, the agency arrested a Georgia man for illegally importing 10 wild pigs to Edgefield County. He was found guilty in magistrate’s court in December, records show.
The illegal and loosely regulated wildlife trade affects South Carolina both in what is being brought here, and what is being shipped to overseas markets.
Among the native animals in peril are box turtles and spotted turtles — rare reptiles with fragile populations that scientists say are harder to find today than in years past.
Turtles are being shipped to China and other Asian countries, where many native reptiles have disappeared, to be used as pets or food. Scientists are particularly worried about what appear to be dwindling turtle populations in an area between Orangeburg and Walterboro, where many people busted for wildlife crimes operate.
“We know there are people out there collecting,’’ former DNR biologist Bennett said. “But there’s not always a way to enforce things, to check up on these people. If you happen to catch one occasionally, that’s fine.’’