A recent news release reported the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has charged two suspects with the illegal capture and sale of more than 4,000 turtles during a six-month period. The article caught my attention because it brought to light the rarely exposed underbelly of one of the most insidious threats facing wildlife---the black market commerce of these important members of our wild communities.

These multimillion illegal activities are conducted every day in every state across the land. They involve the sale of hundreds of different species ranging from game animals, like black bears, and songbirds to turtles and even butterflies. 

In the Florida case, officials documented the duo purportedly trapping and marketing a wide variety of turtles that are also native to Georgia, including eastern box turtles, chicken turtles, spotted turtles, softshell turtles, and diamondback terrapins. 

Remarkably, some of these turtles were sold wholesale for $300 apiece. Freshwater and terrestrial turtles are frequently the targets of poachers. Fifty-seven species (roughly 18 percent of the world’s freshwater and terrestrial turtles) are native to the United States. 

Criminals often concentrate their activities on the southeastern United States because this area of the country is home to the second highest number of turtle species; only southeastern Asia can boast of more. Twenty-six of the species are found in Georgia alone.

A combination of Federal and state laws protect turtles. Like the laws and regulations regarding the harvest of game birds, mammals and fish, these regulations regulate the harvest (seasons, bag limits, and methods) by which turtles may be taken from the wild. In many cases, species of turtles are totally protected.

Terrestrial and freshwater turtles snatched by poachers are sold throughout the world. The demand for these turtles is highest in China and other Asian countries. In spite of the fact that millions of turtles are legally exported annually to this part of the world, it cannot keep up with the demand for reptiles. This has encouraged the global black market trafficking of turtles.

 In large part the black market is fueled by the insatiable demands of  well-heeled collectors that are more than willing to shell out up to $1,000 for a single box or painted turtle. University of Southern California biologist Craig Sanford characterizes these individuals as “major predators on turtles around the world.”

There seems to be no limit to how much millionaire collectors will pay for turtles. Unfortunately, as certain species become rarer, their price goes up---there is no better example of this than the ploughshare tortoise.  

This endangered tortoise is only found in an extremely small section of Madagascar where it is estimated only 200 may still live in the wild. Shortly after a poacher made the medically unsubstantiated claim he was cured of cancer by consuming extracts derived from the meat of this tortoise, the demand for this endangered tortoise skyrocketed to the point that a single ploughshare tortoise can fetch $50,000 on the black market. Is it any wonder, turtle experts predict this species may become extinct in the wild within the next 50 years? 

Box and painted turtles are particularly coveted as pets and viewed as good luck symbols. In addition they are consumed to help cure a number of ailments and enhance male virility.

Smugglers go to great lengths to smuggle North American turtles out of the country.  In one instance, Federal wildlife inspectors opened a package being mailed to China that contained 170 turtles. The turtles were concealed in men’s socks.

Turtle experts across the globe are concerned that the populations of many turtles are plummeting due to habitat loss and overharvesting. It is estimated that each year literally tens of thousands of turtles wind their way through black market supply lines. Meanwhile, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife agencies are working diligently to ensure the legal trade in turtles does not have a deleterious impact on wild turtle populations. These efforts are becoming increasingly more difficult as the illegal trafficking of native turtles continues to rise.

 If this activity is allowed to continue unabated, the sight of a box turtle crossing a Monroe County road might become a thing of the past.

It would be naive for us to believe that turtle poaching is not going on in the Peach State and perhaps even locally. However, such activities are difficult to ferret out. With that in mind, if you have any knowledge of turtle poaching, contact the Georgia Wildlife Resources’ Law Enforcement Section at 1-800-241-4113.

For more information regarding the possession and harvest of turtles in Georgia, consult the latest edition of the Georgia Sport Fishing and Regulation Guide.

Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at tjwoodduck@bellsouth.net.