FWC busts trafficking ring smuggling thousands of turtles
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently charged two Fort Myers men for reportedly poaching thousands of native turtles from the wild and selling them illegally in Florida, with final destinations in international markets.
Michael Jason Boesenberg, 39, of 9028 Pineapple Road, was charged on Oct. 17 with nine counts of standard caging requirements for captive wildlife and three counts of taking over the bag limit of turtles, along with one count each of dealing in stolen property as an organizer, over the possession limit of box turtles, sale and offer for sale turtle taken from the wild, possession of marine turtle parts, possession of black bear parts, possess cannabis over 20 grams, possess with intent to sell/deliver and possess controlled substance (THC oil).
Michael Cody Clemons, 23, of 12570 Water Lane, was charged on Oct. 18 with two counts of taking over the bag limit of turtles, along with one count each of dealing in stolen property, over the possession limit of box turtles, sale and offer for sale turtle taken from the wild and transporting wild caught turtles without a permit.
The charges represent the state’s largest seizure of turtles in recent history.
“Putting a stop to this criminal enterprise is a significant win for conservation,” Col. Curtis Brown, head of FWC’s Division of Law Enforcement, said in a prepared statement. “Arresting people engaged in illegal wildlife trafficking supports our environment and legal businesses. It is especially positive and rewarding to be able to release many of the turtles back into the wild.”
The illegal commercialization of wildlife ranks fourth behind guns, drugs and human smuggling and, in many instances, is connected due to the monetary gain, the FWC reported. The International Fund for Animal Welfare estimates illegal wildlife trade in the United States at $19 billion annual income.
The FWC launched an undercover investigation after receiving a tip in February 2018, according to officials. Through surveillance and other investigative tactics, investigators determined that a ring of well-organized wildlife traffickers was illegally catching and selling wild turtles to large-scale reptile dealers and illegal distributors, who shipped most of them overseas on the black market.
Boesenberg reportedly directed individuals to illegally collect turtles in large numbers. Once he had enough turtles on hand, he would then sell to a buyer with links to Asian markets, the FWC said.
To fulfill a buyer’s request, the poachers targeted habitats known for the specific species. Over time, they depleted the populations so much that they had to expand into other parts of the state to meet the growing demand. The FWC predicts that turtle populations are most heavily impacted in Lee County, the primary source, but that the suspects worked with other wildlife traffickers around the state and country. The total negative impacts to wild turtle populations stretch beyond Lee County and Florida.
“Wild turtle populations cannot sustain the level of harvest that took place here,” FWC Reptile and Amphibian Conservation Coordinator Dr. Brooke Talley, said. “This will likely have consequences for the entire ecosystem and is a detriment for our citizens and future generations.”
Depending upon the species, the poached turtles sold wholesale for up to $300 each and retailed for as much as $10,000 each in Asia. Evidence indicated turtles sold within one month totaled an estimated $60,000. The sellers received mostly cash, occasionally trading turtles for marijuana products.
The FWC documented more than 4,000 turtles illegally taken and sold over a six-month period, including Florida box turtles, Eastern box turtles, striped mud turtles, Florida mud turtles, chicken turtles, Florida softshell turtles, Gulf Coast spiny softshell turtles, spotted turtles and diamondback terrapins. As a result of a search warrant on Aug. 12, investigators found the poachers in possession of hundreds of turtles, along with the skull and shell of a protected Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle.
The turtles seized had an estimated black market value of $200,000.
All seized animals were evaluated for health and species identification by FWC biologists. Over 600 turtles were returned to the wild, two dozen were quarantined and released at a later date, and a handful were retained by a captive wildlife licensee since they were not native to the area. Nearly 300 of the freed turtles are now part of a long-term monitoring project by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.
“SCCF has been conducting research on these turtles for nearly two decades,” SCCF Wildlife & Habitat Management Program Director Chris Lechowicz said. “Thanks to FWC for uncovering this illicit activity that has adversely affected wild turtle populations.”
Selling wild-caught freshwater turtles is illegal and harvesting them from the wild is regulated by Florida Administrative Code. Some species may be kept as captive wildlife with the proper permits.
The public can help by reporting suspected wildlife violations to the FWC. To make a report, call the Wildlife Alert hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922) or text Tip@MyFWC.com.