Booming black market for deadly snakes and exotic turtles puts animals in peril
By Sammy Fretwell
The State (Columbia, S.C.)
COLUMBIA, S.C. — 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 the illicit and loosely regulated wildlife trade, a shadowy but lucrative industry that is imperiling native species, threatening to spread disease and attracting crooks.
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 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,” South Carolina 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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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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.
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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 South Carolina 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.
While South Carolina 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.