A Holly Hill man is facing prison time after his second conviction in three years for smuggling turtles.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Steven Baker pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiracy to smuggle wildlife. Prosecutors accused Baker of leading an “international syndicate” of wildlife smugglers who exchanged turtles protected by international agreements back and forth between the United States and China between January and June 2016.
He faces up to five years in prison and a potential $250,000 fine when he is sentenced at a later date. It is not Baker’s first conviction. He was sentenced to three years probation in September 2015 for wildlife trafficking. Baker owned and operated Southeastern Reptile Locators at the time of his first arrest.
Warrants accuse Baker of obtaining protected turtles from Hong Kong to distribute illegally in the United States, while simultaneously shipping federally-protected turtles to Asia. The transactions were set up using the Facebook text messaging feature.
Court documents estimate the smuggled turtles were worth up to $409,000, depending on the market. Several packages were intercepted at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Investigators discovered 46 turtles being shipped, but believe hundreds more got through.
The federal government recognizes the southeastern U.S. as a “Turtle Priority Area” for conservation due to its rich turtle biodiversity. However, the region’s turtle population is vulnerable due to commercial over-exploitation of turtles for consumption, high nest mortality, and delayed maturity. The Spotted Turtle has suffered from these effects so much so that it was recently listed for protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).