Illegal Reptile Trafficking Nabs Man In Valdosta

Turtles shipped to China, vipers from Africa—illegal reptile trade targeted by law enforcement.

GON Staff | March 12, 2022

An effort to curtail the trafficking of reptiles to China nabbed a man who shipped turtles and snakes—including deadly vipers native to Africa—from a home he had in Valdosta. Georgia DNR Law Enforcement and federal agencies cooperated on the case.

A federal judge in Valdosta on Feb. 23 sentenced Ashtyn Michael Rance, 35, a resident of Miami, to 33 months in prison, a $4,300 fine and three years of post-release supervision, according to a Department of Justice press release. The judge also prohibited Rance from possessing or selling wildlife during the supervisory period. Rance pleaded guilty on Nov. 18, 2021, to violating the Lacey Act (wildlife trafficking) and unlawfully possessing firearms (possession of a firearm by a convicted felon). Rance had faced up to five years in prison on the wildlife trafficking charge and up to 10 years on the gun charge, as well as a $250,000 fine for each charge.

Gaboon vipers, found in central Africa, have the longest fangs of any venomous snake—up to 2 inches long—and the highest venom yield of any snake.

In pleading guilty, Rance admitted that on Feb. 22, 2018, he shipped three eastern box turtles and 16 spotted turtles from Valdosta to a customer in Florida in a package falsely labeled as containing tropical fish and common lizards. He was paid $3,300 for the turtles and knew they were being subsequently trafficked to China.

Rance further admitted that on May 10, 2018, he shipped 15 Gaboon vipers from Valdosta to Florida, the DOJ release said. The snakes were worth approximately $900 and also headed to a buyer in China. He falsely labeled the package as containing harmless reptiles and ball pythons. Rance had legally imported 100 Gaboon vipers and other venomous snakes from Africa to Atlanta. He received a special permit to transport the snakes out of Georgia to South Carolina, but he later returned to Valdosta with 16 vipers. Rance possessed and sold the reptiles in violation of Georgia laws. Rance told a South Carolina newspaper that concerns about the wildlife trade are overblown, saying states like South Carolina have looser laws that allow businesses to operate without hassle compared to wildlife laws in Florida, which he said are so strict they allow authorities to harass him.

“There are rapists and murderers and drug traffickers’’ that deserve a high priority for prosecution, Rance said. “Yet they want to come after some (expletive) animals. They have nothing better to do?’’ the newspaper quoted.

The federal Lacey Act is the nation’s oldest wildlife trafficking statute, and it prohibits, among other things, transporting wildlife in interstate commerce if the wildlife is illegal under state laws. It is also a Lacey Act violation to falsely label a package containing wildlife.

Eastern box turtles and spotted turtles

The spotted turtle is a semi-aquatic turtle native to the eastern United States and Great Lakes region. The eastern box turtle is found in forested regions of the East Coast and Midwest. Collectors prize both species in the domestic and foreign pet trade market, where they are resold for thousands of dollars.

The Gaboon viper is native to central Africa where it lives in rainforests and savannas. Its venom can cause shock, loss of consciousness or death in humans. Authorities intercepted the package containing the vipers to minimize the risk of a bite or escape.

Additionally, Rance acknowledged that he possessed a Bushmaster Carbine .223 caliber rifle and Mossberg 12 gauge shotgun in his Valdosta residence that he was prohibited from owning as a convicted felon, the DOJ release said.

The case began in 2018 when DNR noted an increased number of calls from a Valdosta neighborhood to local animal control regarding snakes, mostly involving African ball pythons, which are not venomous, but which understandably are still quite upsetting to find in your south Georgia neighborhood. On May 11, 2018, law enforcement executed a search warrant of the home. The case even triggered a town hall meeting in the Wood Valley subdivision.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement in Vero Beach, Florida, the ATF and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources conducted the investigation as part of Southern Surge Task Force’s “Operation Middleman.” The operation focused on the trafficking of reptiles from the United States to China.

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