eastern box turtles
Eastern box turtles from a separate case confiscated from an illegal shipment in June 2022. Credit: New England Aquarium/USFWS

New York Man Arrested for Smuggling Protected Turtles for the Black Market

A federal grand jury charged a New York man for illegally shipping protected turtles overseas so they could be sold in a global black market.

A federal grand jury charged a New York man on Wednesday for illegally shipping protected turtles overseas so they could be sold in a global black market. Russell Milis, 26, of Brooklyn, now faces two counts of smuggling goods from the U.S. and one count of violating the Lacey Act. According to the indictment, Milis exported eastern box turtles and three-toed box turtles to China between November 2019 and November 2020. Authorities allege he did so without the necessary license or declaring the wildlife to customs.

Why selling protected turtles is illegal

Authorities say both federal law and international agreements protect the species. Additionally, the Lacey Act, the nation's oldest wildlife trafficking law, prohibits the shipping of wildlife for commercial purposes without accurate labeling. In turn, federal law protects both species of turtles, which are native to certain areas in the U.S. Authorities added that such turtles, because of their colorful markings, sell for thousands of dollars in the markets of China and Hong Kong.

Eastern box turtles

The eastern box turtle is native to the eastern United States. In fact, both North Carolina and Tennessee listed it as the official state reptile. Although once plentiful, they're now listed as vulnerable due to the loss of habitat, traffic deaths (because they're so slow), and collection by humans.

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Three-toed box turtles

The three-toed box turtle is native to south-central part of the U.S. In fact, Missouri listed it as its official reptile. While they resemble eastern box turtles, you can identify them by their three toes. Also like eastern box turtles, they're listed as vulnerable.

If convicted, Milis could face up to 10 years in prison for each smuggling count. And, he could face five years in prison for each violation of the Lacey Act. The court could also order him to pay up to $250,000 or twice the financial gain of each sale.

In April, a federal court sentenced a Colombian woman for similar crimes. Nancy Teresa Gonzalez de Barberi received 18 months in prison. She pleaded guilty to illegally importing goods made from the skin of protected wildlife for her luxury purse business.