Forty-four years of global trade in CITES-listed snakes: Trends and implications for conservation and public health

Author links open overlay panelFleurHierinkab1IsabelleBolona1Andrew M.DursoadRafaelRuiz de CastañedaaCarlosZambrana-TorreliocEvan A.EskewcNicolasRayabShow morehttps://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108601Get rights and content

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320720306595

Highlights

Trade in CITES-listed snakes is dominated by commercially purposed pythons.•

Live snakes are mainly exported by Ghana, Indonesia, Togo and Benin, and imported by China and the USA.•

Traded snakes are increasingly reported as being sourced from captivity rather than the wild.•

Potentially invasive snake species are heavily traded as pets.•

Traded venomous snakes are mainly wild-caught, potentially increasing snakebite risk.

Abstract

Trade in venomous and non-venomous snakes can negatively impact wild snake populations and may drive snakebite risk for people. However, we often lack sufficient trade data to identify where the potential risks for snake population decline and snakebite are highest. Currently, the legal, international trade of 164 snake species is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). We analyzed CITES-listed snake trade from 1975 to 2018 using the recently released shipment-level CITES Trade Database to identify spatiotemporal trends of snake trade and generate insights regarding snake conservation and potential public health risks from snakebite. Commercially purposed pythons dominated the global snake trade, comprising 38.8% of all traded snakes. Live snakes were mainly exported by Ghana, Indonesia, Togo, and Benin, and imported by China and the USA. Venomous snake trade comprised 10.8% of all traded snakes, and over 75% of wild-sourced venomous snakes came from Indonesia. Although traded snakes in recent years are increasingly comprised of captive-bred animals, the majority of snakes are still wild-sourced (> 60% between 2015 and 2017), including IUCN-listed species, with potentially detrimental impacts on conservation status. Further, the CITES Trade Database reveals geographic regions where venomous snakes are sourced from the wild, posing potential risks to snake catchers, traders, and pet owners. The database also documents the movement of non-native snake species through trade, with implications for conservation of native species. This study represents the first global analysis focused specifically on CITES-listed snake trade using the CITES Trade Database.

Snakebit

My yellow lab, Honey, is recuperating from being bit by a rattlesnake yesterday early evening (after the vets’ offices were closed around here). She was curious about it, but a little wary, so it must have only reached her with one fang. Her face swelled up and her eyes were sunken and she laid in the first patch of grass she saw when we got home (rather than running around). But she is much better (considering) and finally ate something this morning.

Because of my hearing issue (tinnitus) I couldn’t hear it rattle, but I’m pretty sure she did since she reacted to that snake much more aggressively than she does to the bull snakes we see closer to home. It was hotter than usual that day, and because we were just going to go down and splash off in the creek, she was off-leash. I called her back from what I at first thought was a harmless bull snake, forgetting we were 10 miles further into the mountains, where ‘timber-rattlers’ are more common than bull snakes. She must have been half-heeding my warning calls and half-afraid of the snakes rattling warning. Still, it grazed her and drew some blood and gave the dog the message it was not a snake to be trifled with…
I think the poor snake may have been hurt by one of the cars in the nearby campground, or by a car or 4-wheeler using the old forest service road going along the creek it was coiled 5 feet from. That could explain why Honey didn’t seem to get a full dose of venom and was already recovering within an hour of being bit. Her main symptom was lethargy and a swollen face and leg. Her face was so puffy she looked more like a bull terrier (like Spuds Mackenzie) than a yellow lab.
Anyway, she’s laying low and taking it slow today, which is probably a good plan since it’s another hot one…

Rattlesnake den photo copyright Jim Robertson

Wuhan under lockdown as coronavirus outbreak kills 17 in China

6 hr 37 min ago

Coronavirus spreads more easily from person to person than previously thought, says WHO official

Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images
Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

The Wuhan coronavirus that has killed at least 17 people and infected more than 600 spreads more easily from person to person than previously thought, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) official.

“We are now seeing second and third generation spread,” said Dr. David Heymann, the chairperson of a WHO committee that is gathering data on the virus.

Third generation means that someone who became infected after handling animals at the market in Wuhan, China, spreads the virus to someone else, who then spreads it to a third person.

The virus initially appeared to spread only by very close contact that would typically occur within a family, such as hugging, kissing, or sharing eating utensils, Heymann said.

Now, he says evidence is accruing that shows more distant contact could spread the virus, such as if a sick person were to sneeze or cough near someone else’s face.

He said there is no evidence at this point that the virus is airborne and could be spread across a room, as happens with the flu or measles.

6 hr 41 min ago

How coronavirus affects your body

3 hr 32 min ago

Travel restrictions placed on third Chinese city

Travel restrictions have been put in place in Ezhou, the third Chinese city to be affected by measures aimed at controlling the spread of coronavirus.

Ezhou’s railway station has been closed “in order to fully conduct prevention and control of the new type of pneumonia causing coronavirus, effectively cut off the transmission of the virus, resolutely curb the spread of the epidemic, and ensure the safety and health of the people,” according to a Thursday statement from the Ezhou City Coronavirus Disease Prevention Control Headquarters.

Earlier in the day public transport and long distance transport networks were suspended in nearby Huanggang, according to its municipal government.

Huanggang’s central market is temporarily closed, as well as all entertainment venues, public halls, movie theaters and tourism centers.

Cars coming in and out of the city will be checked and searched, and people will have their temperatures taken.

7 hr 2 min ago

Cathay Dragon suspends flights to and from Wuhan amid deadly coronavirus

Shutterstock
Shutterstock

Airline Cathay Dragon announced Thursday it is suspending flights to and from Wuhan amid the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

“In light of the evolving situation in Wuhan, Cathay Dragon is temporarily suspending flights to and from Wuhan effective January 24, 2020 until 29 February, 2020,” said the company in a statement.

“We are monitoring the situation closely and will continue to coordinate with the health authorities in Hong Kong and in all the ports to which we operate flights.”

Cathay Dragon is a subsidiary of Hong Kong’s flag carrier, Cathay Pacific.

Cathay Pacific stock declined 2.1% in Hong Kong Thursday as the aviation sector comes under pressure amid the spread of the coronavirus.

3 hr 37 min ago

Beijing scraps all large-scale New Year Celebrations

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Authorities in Beijing have canceled all large-scale Chinese New Year celebrations in an effort to contain the growing spread of Wuhan coronavirus.

“In order to control the epidemic, protect people’s lives and health, reduce the mass gathering and ensure people to have a harmonious and peaceful Spring Festival, it is decided to cancel all the large-scale events, including temple fairs, in Beijing as of today,” read a Thursday statement from the governmental Beijing Culture and Tourism Bureau.

“Citizens shall strengthen the preventative measures and support the decision. We will notify the policy changes with the epidemic development … And wish all citizens a happy Spring Festival,” the statement continued.

Chinese New Year 2020 runs from Saturday 25 through February 8.

7 hr 47 min ago

What do we know about Wuhan?

Shutterstock
Shutterstock

Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak originated, is the capital city of Hubei province in Central China.

It is the 10th most populated city in China, with 8,837,300 residents in 2018, according to the National Statistics Bureau.

The city is widely referred to as having a population of 11 million. This includes migrant workers and other residents who do not have Wuhan residency registration, and who are hence not included in the national census.

The city is home to some of the top universities in China, including Huazhong University of Science and Technology (ranked ninth in the country), Wuhan University (ranked 12th) and China University of Geosciences (23rd in China).

Tennis player Li Na hails from the city, which is also famous as the birthplace of the 1911 armed uprising that eventually overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty.

In 2018 the city had 398 hospitals and 17 centers for disease control and prevention out of a total 6,340 medical institutions.

Wuhan has a total number of 95,300 beds in hospitals and community clinics, and 136,300 people are employed in its medical institutions.

The average life expectancy in the city is 81.29 years.

8 hr 2 min ago

A second city has been placed under lockdown

Huanggang, a neighboring city about 80 kilometers (50 miles) east of Wuhan, will be effectively locked down due to risks associated with the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus, Chinese state media reported.

The Hubei Huanggang New-type Coronavirus Pneumonia Prevention and Control Command, a task force set up to deal with the crisis, said in a statement that at midnight, the city’s subway and train stations will close, per a report in the People’s Daily, a state-run newspaper. All theaters, internet cafes and indoor public culture, tourism and entertainment facilities in the city will also stop business, People’s Daily reported.

Like Wuhan, Huanggang is located on the banks of the Yangtze River. The entire administrative area of Huanggang has a population of 7.5 million, but People’s Daily reported that the lockdown only applies to the urban area, which is only a part of the total population.

9 hr 7 min ago

More cases confirmed throughout China

People wear face masks as they wait for arriving passengers at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing on January 23.
People wear face masks as they wait for arriving passengers at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing on January 23. Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Regional health authorities in China have confirmed 13 new cases of the Wuhan coronavirus, bringing the total number of cases in mainland China to 611.

Eight more cases were confirmed in Beijing. Shaanxi Province and the Xinjiang Autonomous Region confirmed three and two cases, respectively.

Those are the first cases that have been confirmed in Xinjiang and Shaanxi — meaning that of the 22 provinces, five autonomous regions, two special administrative regions and four municipalities under the control of the People’s Republic of China, only five have not reported confirmed cases of the Wuhan coronavirus as of midday Thursday.

They are:

  • Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region
  • Tibet Autonomous Region
  • Gansu Province
  • Qinghai Province
  • Hong Kong

The Hong Kong government has not formally confirmed the presence of the virus in the city, but said it is investigating two “highly suspected” cases. Preliminary tests of the first individual were positive for the virus.

The self-governing island of Taiwan has reported a confirmed case of the coronavirus.

9 hr 38 min ago

“People aren’t sure when shops will be going back to normal,” Wuhan resident says

The Wuhan New-type Coronavirus Pneumonia Command — a task-force set up to deal with the crisis — said in a statement that Wuhan has a sufficient supply and reserve of food, medical supplies and commodities.

“There is no need for the general public of the city to panic or hoard in order to prevent unnecessary wastes,” the command said.

However, there is still unease among many in the city.

Jan Renders, a 29-year-old PhD student in Wuhan, told CNN that many shops are closing for the Lunar New Year holiday, so many people had already been stocking up on supplies. Renders, who has lived in Wuhan for the last two and a half months, said he was able to stock up on food for at least a week.

“But of course people aren’t sure whether shops will be going back to normal soon,” he said.

Another man in Wuhan sent CNN a picture inside a grocery store Thursday morning that showed several empty shelves. The man, who asked not to be identified, said most of the food was sold out.

This photograph taken Thursday morning shows inside a grocery store in Wuhan.
This photograph taken Thursday morning shows inside a grocery store in Wuhan.
10 hr 2 min ago

Wuhan is a London-sized city

A man wears a mask while walking in the street on Wednesday in Wuhan
A man wears a mask while walking in the street on Wednesday in Wuhan Getty Images

Wuhan, the city where the outbreak originated, is home to more than 11 million people — that’s as big, or bigger than London, the largest city by population in the European Union.

It’s the biggest city in all of central China — and unsurprisingly, is considered the political, economic and transport capital of the region.

Located in Hubei province on the confluence of the Yangtze River and its largest tributary, the Han River, the city is often referred to as “jiu sheng tong qu,” meaning it’s considered the main thoroughfare of nine provinces.

In other words, Wuhan is huge and densely populated, with people coming and going every day — making the outbreak and lockdown a nightmare for authorities, especially ahead of Lunar New Year this weekend.

To put it in perspective: The lockdown is like closing down all transportation for a city more than three times the size of Chicago, two days before Christmas.

More about Wuhan: Wuhan is a major manufacturing city with a heavy focus on automobile and medical equipment: Bosch and PSA both relocated their China headquarters to Wuhan recently.

The city, spanning 8,494 square kilometers, has played a major role in the government’s plan to rejuvenate the nation’s central region for more than a decade.

But the city’s historical importance can be traced back more than 3,000 years. Wuhan is listed as one of the Famous Historical and Culture Cities by the state and is home to the ruins of Panlong City.

Read more about Wuhan here.

3 hr 39 min ago

The Chinese government announced the highways out of Wuhan are closed

Chinatopix/AP
Chinatopix/AP

The Wuhan New-type Coronavirus Pneumonia Command — a Chinese task-force set up to deal with the crisis — has announced the closure of highways out of the city, a move it called a “necessary act to stop the spreading of the epidemic.”

However, minutes later the announcement was removed from the website. It’s unclear why.

The decision to effectively cut off Wuhan from the rest of the world has sparked fears among some on social media about the availability of food and medicine inside the city.

Flights out of Wuhan had already been suspended and public transport in the city has stopped.

10 hr 41 min ago

People are apparently trying to get out of Wuhan — and Chinese social media users are not happy about it

Workers use infrared thermometers to check the temperature of passengers arriving from Wuhan at a train station in Hangzhou on Thursday, January 23.
Workers use infrared thermometers to check the temperature of passengers arriving from Wuhan at a train station in Hangzhou on Thursday, January 23. Chinatopix via AP

Fear and anxiety is mounting in China, with controversy on social media over residents who apparently fled Wuhan ahead of the partial lockdown enforced on Thursday.

On the microblogging platform Weibo, people shared their fears over the virus, as well as cautionary warnings. “Don’t panic and try not to go out,” one person warned.

Another person posted they had thought about fleeing Wuhan. “I was thinking about my parents and children — if I bring them, where can we escape to?” read the post.

“Tomorrow will there be a line to snatch supplies? Will the next step be to send troops here to maintain order? By spring, will this explode into an epidemic? Or by May, will Wuhan have been restored to peace and goodness?”

Controversy over evacuees: On early Thursday morning, train stations in Wuhan were packed with people trying to get out of the city before the blockade went into effect. Crowds jammed together, trying to get on the last few trains out of the city of 11 million people.

The rush to get out has even got its own hashtag on Weibo — #EscapeFromWuhan.

But the mass exodus has been met with anger from many Weibo users, who accused people leaving Wuhan of being selfish and irresponsible as they could then potentially spread the virus.

“Wuhan people, get out of Shanghai,” one person posted. “Don’t sneak in and spread chaos.”

Snakes could be the original source of the new coronavirus outbreak in China

 

Chinese cobra (Naja atra) with hood spread. Briston/WikimediaCC BY-SA

Snakes – the Chinese krait and the Chinese cobra – may be the original source of the newly discovered coronavirus that has triggered an outbreak of a deadly infectious respiratory illness in China this winter.

The many-banded krait (Bungarus multicinctus), also known as the Taiwanese krait or the Chinese krait, is a highly venomous species of elapid snake found in much of central and southern China and Southeast Asia. Briston/WikimediaCC BY-SA

The illness was first reported in late December 2019 in Wuhan, a major city in central China, and has been rapidly spreading. Since then, sick travelers from Wuhan have infected people in China and other countries, including the United States.

Using samples of the virus isolated from patients, scientists in China have determined the genetic code of the virus and used microscopes to photograph it. The pathogen responsible for this pandemic is a new coronavirus. It’s in the same family of viruses as the well-known severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), which have killed hundreds of people in the past 17 years. The World Health Organization (WHO) has named the new coronavirus 2019-nCoV.

We are virologists and journal editors and are closely following this outbreak because there are many questions that need to be answered to curb the spread of this public health threat.

What is a coronavirus?

The name of coronavirus comes from its shape, which resembles a crown or solar corona when imaged using an electron microscope.

The electron microscopic image, reveals the crown shape structural details for which the coronavirus was named. This image is of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV). National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

Coronavirus is transmitted through the air and primarily infects the upper respiratory and gastrointestinal tract of mammals and birds. Though most of the members of the coronavirus family only cause mild flu-like symptoms during infection, SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV can infect both upper and lower airways and cause severe respiratory illness and other complications in humans.

This new 2019-nCoV causes similar symptoms to SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV. People infected with these coronaviruses suffer a severe inflammatory response.

Unfortunately, there is no approved vaccine or antiviral treatment available for coronavirus infection. A better understanding of the life cycle of 2019-nCoV, including the source of the virus, how it is transmitted and how it replicates are needed to both prevent and treat the disease.

Zoonotic transmission

Both SARS and MERS are classified as zoonotic viral diseases, meaning the first patients who were infected acquired these viruses directly from animals. This was possible because while in the animal host, the virus had acquired a series of genetic mutations that allowed it to infect and multiply inside humans.

Now these viruses can be transmitted from person to person. Field studies have revealed that the original source of SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV is the bat, and that the masked palm civets (a mammal native to Asia and Africa) and camels, respectively, served as intermediate hosts between bats and humans.

In the case of this 2019 coronavirus outbreak, reports state that most of the first group of patients hospitalized were workers or customers at a local seafood wholesale market which also sold processed meats and live consumable animals including poultry, donkeys, sheep, pigs, camels, foxes, badgers, bamboo rats, hedgehogs and reptiles. However, since no one has ever reported finding a coronavirus infecting aquatic animals, it is plausible that the coronavirus may have originated from other animals sold in that market.

The hypothesis that the 2019-nCoV jumped from an animal at the market is strongly supported by a new publication in the Journal of Medical Virology. The scientists conducted an analysis and compared the genetic sequences of 2019-nCoV and all other known coronaviruses.

The study of the genetic code of 2019-nCoV reveals that the new virus is most closely related to two bat SARS-like coronavirus samples from China, initially suggesting that, like SARS and MERS, the bat might also be the origin of 2019-nCoV. The authors further found that the viral RNA coding sequence of 2019-nCoV spike protein, which forms the “crown” of the virus particle that recognizes the receptor on a host cell, indicates that the bat virus might have mutated before infecting people.

But when the researchers performed a more detailed bioinformatics analysis of the sequence of 2019-nCoV, it suggests that this coronavirus might come from snakes.

The Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where the coronavirus outbreak is believed to have started, is now closed. AP Photo/Dake Kang

From bats to snakes

The researchers used an analysis of the protein codes favored by the new coronavirus and compared it to the protein codes from coronaviruses found in different animal hosts, like birds, snakes, marmots, hedgehogs, manis, bats and humans. Surprisingly, they found that the protein codes in the 2019-nCoV are most similar to those used in snakes.

Snakes often hunt for bats in wild. Reports indicate that snakes were sold in the local seafood market in Wuhan, raising the possibility that the 2019-nCoV might have jumped from the host species – bats – to snakes and then to humans at the beginning of this coronavirus outbreak. However, how the virus could adapt to both the cold-blooded and warm-blooded hosts remains a mystery.

The authors of the report and other researchers must verify the origin of the virus through laboratory experiments. Searching for the 2019-nCoV sequence in snakes would be the first thing to do. However, since the outbreak, the seafood market has been disinfected and shut down, which makes it challenging to trace the new virus’ source animal.

Sampling viral RNA from animals sold at the market and from wild snakes and bats is needed to confirm the origin of the virus. Nonetheless, the reported findings will also provide insights for developing prevention and treatment protocols.

The 2019-nCoV outbreak is another reminder that people should limit the consumption of wild animals to prevent zoonotic infections.

Booming black market for deadly snakes and exotic turtles puts animals in peril

By Sammy Fretwell The State (Columbia, S.C.) Jul 31, 2018 Updated 4 hrs ago (0)
Exotic animals
An Asian Box Turtle peers from its enclosure at the Turtle Survival Center. The South Carolina preserve protects some of the world’s most endangered turtles.

Tracy Glantz / The State

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 South Carolina’s illicit and loosely regulated wildlife trade, a shadowy but lucrative industry that is imperiling native species, threatening to spread disease and attracting crooks to the Palmetto State.

And it’s all happening in a state with limited ability to deal with the problem.

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 in South Carolina 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,” state 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.”

Some dealers are trading native wildlife without getting caught because the state lacks officers. In Herman’s case, state investigators say they were stunned to learn the extent of his operation in Chesterfield County.

Other dealers are legally selling animals, such as highly venomous snakes, that could not be easily sold in other states with stricter wildlife laws.

A recent South Carolina Department of Natural Resources report said the agency is seeing an increase in people from other states bringing reptiles to South Carolina, then exporting them, because of the state’s limited wildlife laws. The agency also is seeing evidence that more people are trapping turtles and other reptiles for resale to other states, the report said.

It’s a significant enough issue that the DNR has assigned a handful of undercover agents to investigate illicit wildlife trading, even as state policymakers consider ways to strengthen minimal wildlife laws and provide more staff members to catch rogue animal dealers.

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.

Chad Welch, an investigator with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said South Carolina’s lack of wildlife trading laws sometimes encourages illicit importing of wildlife into Georgia, where restrictions on reptile sales are stronger.

“It’s easier to acquire wild animals when you can take a couple of hours’ drive to South Carolina, buy them and bring them right back,” he said.

Recently, a Florida man with a criminal record received permission from Georgia authorities to import 220 highly venomous snakes from Africa through the Atlanta airport — if he agreed to ship them to South Carolina within 24 hours after they landed. The shipment, coming from a contact in North Ghana, included spitting cobras and Gaboon vipers, toxic snakes popular in the reptile trade. The man planned to sell them here.

In another recently publicized case, a major player in an international turtle-trafficking scheme pleaded guilty in federal court to wildlife charges after admitting he was shipping and receiving highly endangered turtles from his home in South Carolina. State authorities say loopholes in state wildlife laws made it easier for him to operate out of his house in Holly Hill.

According to an internal Department of Natural Resources report, South Carolina is one of five states with few or no laws regulating the ownership and sale of reptiles. The report says wildlife traders are slippery, well-connected and hard to catch.

“Many of the exporters operate in multiple states,” says the DNR report.
“They will set up multiple residences or change residences often in states with lax reptile laws. They have a network of collectors who collect with or for them to fulfill orders. They communicate better than we do.”

According to the DNR’s internal report, the Herman investigation revealed new ways that wildlife traders communicate and how they are paid for selling animals on the black market.

The DNR, for instance, says Herman was using an internet chatroom for video game enthusiasts to communicate with a wildlife buyer.
Correspondence found on Herman’s computer shows that he was discussing the price of reptiles and how they could be exported to Europe.

“In Germany and France, they pay $800 to $1,200 per pair,” the chatroom note said. In the five months prior to his death, Herman received at least 11 Western Union payments from Hong Kong totaling $19,000, according to information the DNR obtained through the investigation. The agency said he was known at a Florence mailing center for regularly shipping packages filled with small animals.

A DNR informant, who asked not be named because he deals with wildlife traffickers, said he routinely gets text messages from Asian buyers seeking turtles.

In a string of texts obtained by The State newspaper, a buyer said he wanted 10 turtles shipped through Chicago, where he had friends. The potential buyer at one point suggested having the turtles shipped through Massachusetts and Florida, but the informant said “No, lol, they will put you in jail” in the Sunshine State, according to the string of texts.

Weak state laws in South Carolina encourage the growth of illegal dealing by making it easier for people to amass large numbers of animals for sale on the black market.

That’s particularly true with reptiles. While the state restricts the export of many types of turtles, the law doesn’t restrict people from owning as many of those species as they want, said Will Dillman, an agency reptile biologist and assistant wildlife chief.

Some out-of-state turtle trappers bring their catch to South Carolina and keep animals here until they can resell them to other countries — a practice called “turtle laundering.” Turtles are important to the environment because they spread seeds that lead to plant growth and make dens that can be used by other animals. They also are vital to keeping ponds clean because they scavenge for dead fish and other animals in the water.

Many of the wildlife cases made in South Carolina are brought by the federal government, which has more consistent and stricter laws than states do. But federal prosecutors have more than their share of cases that take a higher priority than wildlife crimes.

Some counties and cities in South Carolina, including the city of Columbia and Richland County, have exotic pet laws that limit venomous snake ownership and sales. But others do not. That allows wildlife shows to set up shop in counties like Lexington and sell venomous reptiles.

“We have a patchwork of different state laws on some species,” said Iris Ho, a senior wildlife policy specialist with the Humane Society International. “Something could be protected in one state, but not in another, like South Carolina.”

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.”

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.

The agency needs more than 300 officers, but today has 265, McCullough said. Its special investigative unit has six agents who also investigate wildlife crimes aside from illegal trading.

Sometimes, the DNR does catch people trying to bring in hogs. Last fall, the agency arrested a Georgia man for illegally importing 10 wild pigs to Edgefield County. He was found guilty in magistrate’s court in December, records show.

The illegal and loosely regulated wildlife trade affects South Carolina both in what is being brought here, and what is being shipped to overseas markets.

Among the native animals in peril are box turtles and spotted turtles — rare reptiles with fragile populations that scientists say are harder to find today than in years past.

Turtles are being shipped to China and other Asian countries, where many native reptiles have disappeared, to be used as pets or food. Scientists are particularly worried about what appear to be dwindling turtle populations in an area between Orangeburg and Walterboro, where many people busted for wildlife crimes operate.

“We know there are people out there collecting,” former DNR biologist Bennett said. “But there’s not always a way to enforce things, to check up on these people. If you happen to catch one occasionally, that’s fine.”

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