DNR: Turtle poacher was shipping hundreds of animals overseas

CHESTER, S.C. — Officers with the Department of Natural Resources seized 216 turtles from a home in Chester County and many of them were sick and dehydrated.

[Injured turtle at Maryland Zoo fitted with Lego wheelchair]

They were thrown in barrels and not kept with food or water, officials said.

The eastern box turtles were on their way to Asia.

In places like China, they are believed to bring a long life when they are eaten.

Body parts are also used for medicinal purposes and because of that, many species of the turtle population have been decimated in Asia.

That's why they are of high value to poachers in other countries, including the U.S.

DNR officers told Channel 9 that the people involved in the illegal animal trade are just snatching up turtles from the road and from the woods.

"They're going out and collecting them. I mean these guys spend a lot of time and energy out there and have people that bring them turtles," said Capt. Robert McCullough, with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

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Officials said the investigation has grown into a federal case, across state lines and also involves the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Channel 9 found that last month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said a Pennsylvania man was sentenced to six months in prison and was forced to pay $250,000 in restitution for poaching thousands of turtles and shipping them overseas. The animals were the protected diamondback terrapin and the shipment was worth more than $500,000.

The eastern box turtle, however, is not federally protected or listed as endangered but shipping a large number of them in South Carolina is illegal.

DNR officials are concerned about declines in the local population.

"We're worried about it. I mean, that's why we're constantly looking. We're working with the feds to track that and keep an eye on that," McCullough said.

As of late Wednesday, DNR had not released the name of the person in Chester County, who was cited for trafficking the turtles.

The turtles that were seized are being rehabilitated at Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory near Aiken, South Carolina.