Vanishing turtles and illegal wildlife trading. Can new rules save SC’s reptiles?

Sammy Fretwell
The State

January 16, 2020 4:24 PM

Two of the South’s leading reptile scientists urged state leaders Thursday to crack down on the illegal wildlife trade that is flourishing across South Carolina.

Whit Gibbons and Kurt Buhlmann, longtime researchers at the University of Georgia’s prestigious Savannah River Ecology Laboratory near Aiken, said South Carolina’s native turtles are among the species that need protection with a stronger state law.

The S.C. Legislature is considering a bill, introduced last week, that would close some of the loopholes that make South Carolina attractive for illegal reptile traders. Many black market turtle traders have set up shop here because of the state’s lax rules, wildlife agents say.

“An adult turtle, harvested by poachers and sent to China, is a piece of South Carolina’s heritage that, quite frankly, is stolen from us forever,’’ Buhlmann said, noting that it takes years for turtle populations to recover from poaching and over-harvesting. “It takes forever and ever.’’

Both he and Gibbons, who spoke at a legislative hearing in Columbia, are authors well known for their work on reptiles and reptile habitats. Buhlmann has recently worked to reintroduce rare turtles and frogs to the wild. In 2015, he received a conservation leadership award from a national reptile protection organization for his work.

Gibbons is a fixture at UGA’s Savannah River Ecology lab and still holds the title of ecology professor emeritus at the university. He is now a research professor at the University of South Carolina-Aiken. He has recently been part of a research team following the decline of turtle species and has been featured in national publications, such as Newsweek.

“The primary purpose of the bill is to prevent folks from removing South Carolina’s natural resources of native snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs and salamanders, and then selling them to foreign markets,’’ Gibbons testified Thursday.

The bill would not add restrictions to anyone who collects turtles or snakes as a hobby but would focus on for-profit wildlife trading.

Buhlmann, Gibbons and others say protecting native reptiles is needed because the animals help maintain the balance of nature in South Carolina. The loss of some species can affect the health of other species. The state now has some restrictions on the collection and sale of reptiles, but wildlife officials say it isn’t strong enough.

South Carolina’s role in the world’s black market wildlife trade was chronicled by The State in 2018. The newspaper found examples of smugglers shipping reptiles through South Carolina because of weak state regulation. In one case, a Chester County resident known as “Snakeman’’ was buying and selling turtles across the world from his trailer.

In 2018, federal prosecutors broke up an international black market wildlife ring that involved a Holly Hill man who was shipping South Carolina turtles overseas. Federal prosecutors said Steven Verren Baker was the kingpin of the international smuggling scheme in South Carolina, where he worked with other traders. He received a 27-month prison sentence for his role in the operation.

More recently, authorities found a man suspected in the illegal wildlife trade hiding out in a storage building in a sparsely populated community between Columbia and Charlotte. Wildlife agents seized more than 200 turtles at the site.

The illegal trade in turtles is driven in part by Asian demand for turtles as pets and food. With the reptiles dwindling in Asia, traders are looking at the southeastern United States to meet that demand. Some studies show southeastern turtles are in decline for a variety of reasons.

After hearing testimony Thursday, the S.C. Senate subcommittee approved the bill, sending it to the full Senate Fish, Game and Forestry committee for consideration. It would need approval from both the Senate and House and Gov. Henry McMaster’s signature to become law.

The bill is being discussed in a year when the state has many higher profile issues to deal with, such as the sale of the Santee Cooper power company. But state Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, and others said they were encouraged the bill received subcommittee approval.

“We are the oasis and the sanctuary for bad conduct when it comes our native reptiles,’’ McElveen said. “We need to take reasonable steps to protect them.’’

Specifically, the bill would make it harder to sell or export native reptiles and amphibians to other states, increase penalties for illegal wildlife trafficking and generally give the state Department of Natural Resources more oversight over people who keep these animals in captivity.

Regulations being developed with the bill would limit the number of certain turtles people can keep on their property, depending on the species. Those regulations, for instance, would ban people from owning more than two eastern box turtles. Those owning more than two when the law passes would have to register them with the DNR.

A key loophole in the law allows wildlife traders to legally hold as many turtles as they want on their property in anticipation of selling the animals illegally in other states and countries on the black market. The practice, known as “turtle laundering,’’ needs to be stopped with stricter laws, said Will Dillman, a biologist and reptile expert with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

While reaction to the bill was generally favorable Thursday, two business people who breed snakes in captivity said they were concerned that a tighter law might hurt their legitimate businesses. Senators agreed to examine those concerns before voting the bill out of the full Senate committee.