A North Carolina man was sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to trafficking hundreds of endangered turtles to be sold in Asia, according to federal authorities.
Jesse James Freeman, 48, is accused of supplying at least 722 eastern box turtles, 122 spotted turtles and three wood turtles from North Carolina between January 2017 and September 2018, according to a news release from the Department of Justice.
Freeman would collect the turtles himself and hire poachers to illegally obtain them, according to the release. Then, he supplied the turtles to "middlemen" throughout the U.S. who would sell them to Asia, federal officials say.
Freeman received about $121,000 from the turtle trafficking operation, according to prosecutors, but the reptiles had a much higher price tag overseas. The price of the smuggled turtles exceeds $1.5 million in Asia, the release said.
"Poaching can have devastating impacts on all three turtle species given the low survival rate of hatchlings and the time it takes to reach sexual maturity," the release said. "Collectors prize these species in the domestic and foreign pet trade market, where they are resold for thousands of dollars."
The eastern box turtle is the North Carolina state reptile and can be found in forests on the East Coast and Midwest, according to prosecutors. The spotted turtle and the wood turtle can be found in the eastern U.S. and the Great Lakes area, the release said.
All three turtles are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, according to federal authorities. The turtles aren't considered "presently threatened with extinction" but could become threatened if trade is not regulated.
"The Department of Justice is committed to protecting our native species from international trafficking," said Todd Kim, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "Today's sentence is the latest example that there are severe consequences to those who violate the Lacey Act by exploiting turtles."
In addition to Freeman's prison time, he will also have to pay a $25,000 fine to the Lacey Act Reward Fund and will be unable to own wild-caught wildlife or any wildlife without documentation of origin during the supervisory period, which will last three years after his release, federal authorities said.
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