Environment

International reptile trader found in storage shed

When wildlife agents arrived at a rural Chester County home this past summer, they were surprised to learn that a man wanted across the country on charges that he illegally traded reptiles with China had been living on the property — inside a storage shed — for weeks.

They quickly arrested and handcuffed Nathan Adam Horton before whisking him away to the Chester County Sheriff’s Department. Once there, he admitted his role in illegally trafficking wildlife, according to a state investigative report.

The arrest of Horton this past summer was a major breakthrough in an international wildlife trafficking probe that involved the shipment of turtles through the Atlanta and Los Angeles airports to China over the past three years.

But his arrest also exposes a problem South Carolina can’t seem to shake: Authorities say the Palmetto State is a comfortable place for wildlife traffickers, who can take advantage of the state’s weak reptile trading laws. It’s all state authorities say they can do to keep up sometimes.

“Our laws are a little more lax than other states, and there is a lot of trade going on here,’’ South Carolina wildlife department spokesman Robert McCullough said of Horton. “It would be a natural place for him to come and hide.’’

Turtle smuggling in South Carolina is a major concern to state wildlife officials because it has the potential to wipe out entire populations of turtles. Some of these animals, sought as pets in Asia, take years to reach sexual maturity, so capturing and smuggling turtles out of the state threatens to upset the balance of nature, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Horton’s arrest highlights how people can, in many cases, capture as many turtles as they want and keep the animals for possible resale to other states. While South Carolina law generally restricts to 20 turtles the amount that can be sold and exported, allowing people to keep large numbers of turtles makes it easier to smuggle them out of South Carolina and sell them on the black market when the time is right, the Department of Natural Resources says.

More than 200 turtles confiscated Aug. 14 belonged to Horton, state records show. The animals were taken from the property where he was living in Blackstock, a small community near Chester between Columbia and Charlotte. A former Georgia resident, Horton had moved to South Carolina recently as federal and state authorities investigated.

The DNR says the state’s reptile laws need to be strengthened. Snakes also are a concern. The State newspaper reported in 2018 that an international wildlife dealer imported more than 200 highly venomous snakes to South Carolina because he was not allowed to keep them in Georgia.

In Horton’s case, federal and state authorities from Georgia and Texas had been looking for him for a year or more before they found him in South Carolina, authorities said this week. Investigators in South Carolina said Horton’s arrest puts a dent in the illegal trade of turtles.

“For us, it’s a big deal,’’ McCullough said. “This trade is becoming a major problem.’’

But the agency said no one expected to find Horton on the property when they visited the Blackstock home in August. An investigative report from the S.C. DNR says authorities ran across Horton while investigating another smuggling case involving the illegal harvest and export of eastern box turtles, a species native to South Carolina.

Horton, a burly 35-year-old who once lived in Macon, Ga., emerged from the storage shed after investigators were told by members of a family he was there. The family had allowed him to stay in the building, located on Boyd Road, for several weeks, one of the family members told The State.

None in the family was arrested but the DNR handed out 14 tickets to family members for wildlife trafficking, according to the investigative report.. The agency said the family had been helpful in the investigation.

Family members had little to say about the incident on their land when contacted by The State. One family member, Terry Lucas., said a reporter should not trespass on his family’s property. But a woman identifying herself as a family member told the newspaper Horton was an acquaintance of Terry Lucas, who is her son. She said Horton had lived on the family’s property for about four to five weeks before his arrest.

Before Horton’s arrest in Chester County, South Carolina authorities had information that he had moved from Georgia to Orangeburg County, where he planned to do business. But nothing became of that, according to the S.C. DNR.

Jimmy Rogers, a federal public defender in Columbia who represented Horton briefly, said he could not comment. A public defender in Atlanta was unavailable.

Spokespeople for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Atlanta and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources declined comment, saying the case is still under investigation.

Horton had been under investigation nationally since law enforcement officers found him harvesting turtles on an Atlanta area lake three years ago, according to federal court documents. At one point, about 1,000 turtle traps had been set on the lake, records show. Records show turtles were also being harvested from a lake in south Georgia.

Investigators say people were recruited to trap turtles for Horton, with turtles being shipped from Atlanta through Los Angeles to China. At one point, the smuggling operation attempted to ship turtles from Charleston to Long Beach, Calif., records show. A California exporter was involved in helping make the deals, according to an affidavit filed in federal court by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent.

In some cases, turtles that cost virtually nothing to buy or capture in the southeast sell for hundreds of dollars apiece in China, the investigator’s report said.

“Turtles are considered prized pets in China and can be sold in China for substantial profits,’’ the investigator’s report said. The report said federal data have shown “on average, a 500 percent markup on the price for wild turtles caught in the U.S. and sold in China, meaning that a single turtle can sell for hundreds of dollars.’’

The federal investigator’s report, filed in August in U.S. District Court, said Horton had at one point received $250,000 in his bank account.

The South Carolina investigative report says Horton told them he admitted taking, selling and exporting eastern box turtles annually from the Palmetto State for an undisclosed amount of time. In addition to seizing 216 turtles from the property, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources confiscated two cell phones from Horton, the report says.

The Horton case is the latest black market wildlife issue to touch South Carolina. Earlier this year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Columbia successfully prosecuted Steven Verren Baker and a group of acquaintances for their involvement in black market wildlife trafficking ring. Turtles were being trapped in South Carolina and shipped to China disguised in candy wrappers, records show. Baker received prison time for his role in heading the South Carolina end of the international trading ring.

The black market wildlife trade is a multi-billion dollar worldwide business that involves the shipment of animals and animal parts from one country to another.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

How we did this story

The black market wildlife trade, a multi billion dollar industry worldwide, is an issue in South Carolina because some of the state’s laws aren’t strong enough to keep illegal wildlife traders from doing business here.

The latest story offers insight into the trade and why it’s a problem. Trading wildlife illegally can deplete species from South Carolina when the animals are captured and shipped out of state. The biggest concern to state officials is the illegal trade in reptiles, particularly turtles.

Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment for more than 20 years at The State. He writes about an array of environmental subjects, including nature, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.
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