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Box Turtles In Peril From Black Market Madness

Several box turtles confiscated from a black market trader in Chester County.

A law enforcement arrest of an illegal box turtle smuggler in South Carolina crawled to the top of the headlines in September. The Eastern box turtle is commonly found in the Southeast and is usually ubiquitous with people as one of the friendliest wildlife species to encounter in the wild. The equation that tempts this illegal trade remains in place today, a combination of global demand from Asia and inadequate laws protecting this species in South Carolina. The Turtle Survival Alliance based in Charleston advocates to change the current laws, or face a landscape devoid of the beloved box turtle.
S.C. Department of Natural Resources reports that 200 box turtles were in possession of the smuggling operation based in Chester County. Since box turtles are not usually found in high concentrations, it is particularly alarming to find such a high number of box turtles ready for smuggling. The questions raised from this bust include how many other smugglers are out there, what is number of people that are scooping up box turtles for pay, and what can be done to prevent box turtles from being harvested from any protected properties that are open to the public.
Will Dillman is a herpetologist with the SCDNR. “We know this illegal trade is going on, and we are beginning to catch more of the offenders,” said Dillman. “Box turtles are a part of the International pet trade, food trade, and medicinal trade. Other turtle species are in peril too, but the more colorful and ornate the turtle, the higher the black market price in Asia. A longtime cultural affinity for turtles in Asia has driven many of their turtle species past the brink of sustainability, and they have the disposable income that is fueling global demand.”
“The success story of rescuing these 200 box turtles is tempered by the fact that box turtles have a high site fidelity,” said Dillman. “Once they are removed from their home range, they don’t do well when released into a new area. We are working on perfecting the soft-release system of returning a box turtle to a small habitat range that is fenced off. If the box turtle shows signs of stress we can retrieve it and try again somewhere else. If the box turtle does well in the enclosure then the restrictions are removed, and they are left in the wild.”
Jordan Gray is the Communications Coordinator for the Turtle Survival Alliance. “We were founded in 2001 in Texas and then established a Turtle Survival Center in 2013 in the Lowcountry and moved our headquarters to South Carolina,” said Gray. “We work with 118 species of turtles and tortoises around the world, including the Top 20 endangered turtles. The illegal trade of the Eastern box turtle is a hot topic right now, and South Carolina is at the epicenter of much of the discussion.”
“The Eastern box turtle lives in 26 states, and S.C. is the only state to allow the common harvest of them for the legal pet trade,” said Gray. “An unintended consequence of this law is that turtle laundering is more likely to occur here because the laws are weak. It’s no coincidence that we see more arrests for turtle trafficking as prices surge, rivaling crime levels synonymous with drug dealing. We are hoping to raise awareness and educate S.C. lawmakers about making changes to the laws that will decrease the chance for criminal activity.”
“Regarding the life history and reproduction of the Eastern Box Turtle, a female turtle is around ten years old before they can lay eggs,” said Gray. “Each year after that, she can lay two nests a year with about five eggs each, but mortality rates are high, so it might take multiple years to merely increase the population by a few turtles. Evidence exists that removing several box turtles in a small area can cause that local population to crash. And the average age a box turtle can live is 50 to 80-years old.”
SCDNR uses undercover game wardens to patrol for illegal smuggling of feral hogs and protected species, and they are increasingly aware of the targeting of reptiles. Even with increased efforts, it impossible to know the real toll that the black market is taking on the Eastern Box Turtle in South Carolina. It’s equally impossible to know the huge sums of money being offered for black market turtles.
Here at home, we need to ask ourselves if our National Wildlife Refuge lands, National Forest lands, Wildlife Management Areas, and Heritage Trust lands are wide open to being picked clean of box turtles and other biological diversity by sinister forces? A better question might be, how long has it been since you saw a box turtle in the woods?
Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at LowcountryOutdoors.com

Jeff Dennis
Jeff Dennis, Contributor (376 Posts)

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com