For Immediate Release, January 8, 2020

Contact:

Elise Bennett, Center for Biological Diversity, (727) 755-6950, ebennett@biologicaldiversity.org
Rick Hudson, Turtle Survival Alliance, (817) 343-7380, rhudson@fortworthzoo.org
Paul Gibbons, (503) 250-2197, pmgibbons@gmail.com

South Carolina Senate Bill Would Protect Wild Turtles, Other Reptiles, Amphibians From Commercial Exploitation

COLUMBIA, S.C.— A new bill in the South Carolina Senate Committee on Fish, Game and Forestry would ban the commercial trade of native reptiles and amphibians in the state. The bipartisan measure seeks to end years of extensive poaching, which, enabled by the state’s weak conservation laws, threaten wild populations.

Senate Bill 885 was pre-filed Dec. 11, 2019, by Senators Vincent Sheheen (D, Dist. 27) and George “Chip” Campsen, III (R, Dist. 43) ahead of the 2020 legislative session beginning today.

The bill would make it unlawful for a person to sell, purchase, trade, exchange, barter, export, ship, transfer, possess or rehome any native reptile or amphibian species, with limited exceptions for personal possession of certain species as established by state wildlife officials.

“This legislation is a lifeline for South Carolina’s rare and beautiful reptiles and amphibians, which are targeted for sale in domestic and international markets,” said Elise Bennett, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity who’s dedicated to protecting rare reptiles and amphibians. “Turtles are especially vulnerable to overcollection, as the demand for them is so high. We’re thrilled South Carolina is poised to join the majority of states across the country that protect their wild turtles.”

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.

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.

“Senate Bill 885 will help protect turtles from exploitation in South Carolina but, more importantly, effectively closes a loophole that fosters the illegal collection of protected turtle species in surrounding states,” said Rick Hudson, president of the Turtle Survival Alliance, a global turtle conservation organization based in Charleston, S.C. “The southeastern United States, including South Carolina, is the world’s leading turtle diversity hotspot with at least 20 species of turtles and one tortoise calling South Carolina home. The state is critically important to the survival of these ancient creatures, but they have increasingly come under threat due to poaching for the global wildlife trade. This natural heritage belongs to all South Carolinians, not just those who aim to profit from it for personal gain.”

South Carolina law currently permits unregulated trapping and sale of striped mud turtles, southeastern mud turtles and eastern musk turtles. For another nine turtle species, the state limits 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 acknowledge that current laws fail to protect the state’s native turtles. Because the state only regulates transport of turtles, traffickers can lawfully trap and hold large numbers of turtles on their land, staging them for eventual illegal sale on the black market. They can 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.

“South Carolina’s turtles are a natural treasure, and it breaks my heart knowing these fragile creatures suffer stress and starvation just to enrich traffickers,” said Paul Gibbons, a wildlife veterinarian specializing in reptiles and amphibians. “Successful confiscations leave our zoological facilities and government agencies overwhelmed by the sheer number needing intensive care to nurse them back to health, with little to no hope of ever returning home. Passing this bill would be a great stride in the right direction.”

The bill would also make it unlawful to release captive non-native reptiles and amphibians into the wild and authorizes state wildlife officials to prohibit or restrict possession of certain non-native species. Invasive species like Burmese pythons and Argentine black-and-white tegu lizards are expanding their reach across the southeastern United States, wreaking havoc on native ecosystems.

Background

As part of a campaign to protect turtles in the United States, the Center for Biological Diversity in 2009 submitted a regulatory petition to South Carolina asking it to ban commercial trapping of wild turtles. That year South Carolina limited the transport of some turtle species across state lines; however, these rules left the striped mud turtle, southeastern mud turtle, eastern musk turtle and bog turtle vulnerable to unregulated collection.

Following similar Center petitions and advocacy, Florida, Missouri and Texas banned commercial collection of wild freshwater turtles, New York halted commercial collection of diamondback terrapin turtles, and Nevada halted commercial reptile collection. Arkansas, Georgia and Iowa adopted some restrictions.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.