(CN) – Taking their time like the proverbial tortoise, federal prosecutors are said to have brought charges against a man who was spotted three years ago laying 1,000 turtle traps outside downtown Atlanta.
Nathan Horton is charged with violating the Lacey Act, according to a Friday report from The Associated Press, which says Horton was illegally shipping the turtles to China.
Oddly, apart from Friday’s report, the Justice Department has made no mention of the prosecution, and a search of court records did not produced any relevant results. Representatives for U.S. Fish and Wildlife declined to say where or when the charges against Horton were filed.
Crawford Allan, senior director of the wildlife-trafficking program at the World Wildlife Fund, noted in an interview meanwhile that China and other markets consider wild American turtles a valuable commodity.
“The rarer or more unusual the better for specialist collectors,” Allan said. “There is a whole underground network globally of reptile collectors, traffickers, and traders.”
In an email Friday, Allan singled out Hong Kong as a particular booming market for the illegal reptile trade, which is also prevalent in the U.S., Thailand, China, Japan and Germany.
While the more exotic looking or rare species often become pets, common or less attractive turtles tend to end up on the menu at restaurants or inside medicinal tonics and potions.
The Wildlife Justice Commission laid bare the sheer scale of turtle trafficking last December, reporting on the results of Operation Dragon, a probe led by the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau of India, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia, and INTERPOL Environmental Crime program from 2016 to 2018.
Recovering more than 6,000 live reptiles, the operation disrupted eight major wildlife-trafficking networks, resulting in 30 arrests and the jailing of at least five traffickers.
The report also describes insight that the probe offered into how illegal wildlife networks communicate with each other and how they evade authorities.
Most traffickers rarely receive sentences surpassing five years. In 2014, Zhifei Li, a man caught buying and selling endangered black rhino horns from undercover Fish and Wildlife agents in Florida, was sentenced to 70 months in prison. His sentence was widely reported as one of the stiffest ever.
Lengthy prison sentences are likely not enough to stop the illicit wildlife trade.
“The penalties have to hurt their bank balance and liberty,” said Allan with the World Wildlife Fund. “Systems of intelligence needs to be place to detect if they start up business again. If the laws and penalties don’t work, then it’s a vicious cycle. But also, we have to stop demand and make buyers aware of the risks to wildlife and the penalties involved.”
Potentially undercutting this priority, the Trump administration took action Monday to roll back protections for endangered species.
The new regulations alter how species are selected for protection under the Endangered Species Act and imbues the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with more power to determine what habitats require special protection.
The new rule also limits how climate science can be used when assigning a species to the list.
A spokesman for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources declined to comment on Friday’s charges against Horton. Representatives for the Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.
The Lacey Act dates back 119 years when lawmakers first agreed that wildlife trafficking should be banned. Notably, plants and plant products, like timber and paper, were only given protection under the act just a decade ago.
Millions of reptiles are trafficked internationally each year and few hard and fast regulations are in place to protect many of the species. In fact, according to a recent study in the science journal, Biological Conservation, just 8% of the roughly 10,000 known reptile species are protected under an international treaty that regulates the commercial wildlife trade.