COLUMBIA, S.C.— Gov. Henry McMaster has signed a bill that bans the commercial trade of native turtles in South Carolina. Following advocacy by the Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Survival Alliance, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the IUCN SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group and South Carolina residents, this bipartisan measure will end years of extensive poaching, which was a particular threat to freshwater turtles due to the state’s weak conservation laws.
The new law (H.B. 4831) makes it unlawful to possess, sell, barter, trade, ship or remove from the state 13 species of native turtle, with exceptions for limited personal possession and for scientific, zoological or conservation purposes. The new law ends the commercial trade of all native turtle species in the state.
“We’re thrilled that South Carolina has taken this meaningful step to protect its native turtles,” said Elise Bennett, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This law will raise the state out of a morass of turtle trafficking and make it a safe haven for wild turtles. Finally South Carolina’s native turtles get a fighting chance.”
Previously South Carolina law permitted unregulated trapping and sale of striped mud turtles, eastern mud turtles and eastern musk turtles. For another nine turtle species, the state limited their transport over state lines to no more than 10 per trip and no more than 20 per year, with exceptions for aquaculture and private ponds.
State wildlife officials acknowledged that previous state laws failed to protect its native turtles. Because the state only regulated transport of turtles, traffickers could lawfully trap and hold large numbers of the animals on their land, staging them for eventual illegal sale on the black market. They could also illegally take turtles from surrounding states and “launder” them by passing them off as legally obtained in South Carolina.
In 2018 state wildlife officials arrested a kingpin in an international scheme to traffic rare turtles — along with at least five other men from South Carolina — for his role in trafficking rare turtles from South Carolina to dealers in New York, Hong Kong and the Carolinas. And in September 2019, state wildlife officials seized 216 turtles from a trafficker who was planning to ship them to Asia.
“This is a big win for South Carolina’s native turtles,” said Rick Hudson, president of the Turtle Survival Alliance, a global turtle conservation organization based in Charleston, S.C. “While the state's species continue to face threats, the capture of wild turtles for commercial gain is no longer lawfully one of them. But one of the most important outcomes of this legislation is that it effectively closes an often-exploited loophole that allowed species protected in neighboring states to be laundered through South Carolina.”
Scientists have repeatedly documented that freshwater turtles cannot sustain any significant level of wild collection without population-level impacts and declines. One study of common snapping turtles demonstrated that a modest harvest of 10% per year for 15 years could result in a 50% reduction in population size. Another study of a native South Carolina species protected by the new law found that a loss of as little as 1%-4% of turtles from a population per year greatly increased its extinction risk.
Hundreds of thousands of turtles classified as “wild caught” are exported from the United States every year to supply food, pet and medicinal markets in Asia, where native turtle populations have already been depleted by soaring consumption. Adult turtles are also taken from the wild to breed hatchlings for the international pet trade.
“Wild turtles are under assault the world over, and commercial trapping for the pet and food trades is a huge, unsustainable problem,” said Dr. Craig Stanford, chair of the IUCN SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group. “A statewide ban on commercial trapping in South Carolina is a big step toward preserving a key piece of American biodiversity.”
“I am awestruck by the unanimous support for biodiversity shown by the General Assembly and Gov. McMaster in passing this new law to protect turtles from the cruelty and stress of the wildlife trade,” said Paul Gibbons, a wildlife veterinarian specializing in reptiles and amphibians. “With the enforcement of this new law, zoological facilities and government agencies can now refocus efforts from nursing care for sick and dying confiscated turtles back to maintaining and enhancing their lives in the wild where they belong.”
The new law empowers the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources to manage native reptile and amphibian species through limiting and permitting the sale, trade, possession and transport of those species.
The law also makes it unlawful to release captive non-native animals into the wild and authorizes state wildlife officials to prohibit or restrict possession of non-native species that pose a risk to people or native ecosystems in the state.
As part of a campaign to protect turtles in the United States, the Center in 2009 submitted a regulatory petition to South Carolina asking it to ban commercial trapping of wild turtles. That year the state limited the transport of some turtle species across state lines; however, those rules left the striped mud turtle, eastern mud turtle and eastern musk turtle vulnerable to unregulated collection.
In January 2020 the Center, Turtle Survival Alliance, IUCN SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group and conservationists urged South Carolina legislators to move forward with stronger protections for turtles.
In a February report, the Center identified nine states that threaten wild turtle populations by refusing to ban wild trapping. Before the new law, South Carolina was identified as having some of the weakest laws in the country. It is now the first in the report to move from being rated as having “weak” laws to having strong ones.
Following similar Center petitions and advocacy, Florida, Missouri and Texas have all banned commercial collection of wild freshwater turtles, New York has halted commercial collection of diamondback terrapin turtles, and Nevada has halted commercial reptile collection. Arkansas, Georgia and Iowa have adopted some restrictions.