VALDOSTA, Georgia, February 24, 2022 (ENS) – A Georgia man was sentenced to nearly three years in prison Wednesday for illegally transporting and falsely labeling dangerous venomous African snakes and harmless but rare American turtles across state lines.
A federal judge in Valdosta sentenced Ashtyn Michael Rance, 35, to 33 months in prison on each count to run concurrently, a $4,300 fine and three years of post-release supervision. 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 and unlawfully possessing firearms.
In pleading guilty, Rance admitted that on May 10, 2018, he shipped 15 Gaboon vipers from Valdosta to Florida. The snakes were worth roughly $900 and were 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, but he later returned to Valdosta with 16 of the vipers.
Justice Department authorities said they intercepted the package containing the vipers “to minimize the risk of a bite or escape.”
The Gaboon viper, Bitis gabonica, is native to central Sub-Saharan Africa from the Congo to South Africa and from Ghana to Tanzania. Its venom can cause shock, loss of consciousness or death in humans.
It is the largest member of the genus Bitis, and it has the longest fangs of any venomous snake – up to two inches (5 cm) in length – and the highest venom yield of any snake.
In addition, in pleading guilty, Rance admitted that on February 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.
The spotted turtle, Clemmys guttata, is a semi-aquatic turtle native to the eastern United States and Great Lakes region. The eastern box turtle, Terrapene carolina carolina, is endemic to 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.
Rance possessed and sold the reptiles in violation of Georgia laws. The federal Lacey Act is the nation’s oldest wildlife trafficking statute and prohibits 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.
Additionally, Rance acknowledged that he possessed a Bushmaster Carbine .223 caliber rifle and Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun in his Valdosta residence that he, as a convicted felon, was prohibited from owning.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement in Vero Beach, Florida, the federal department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, 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.
Featured image: A Gaboon viper that Rance had packaged for shipment. These deadly snakes have the world’s longest fangs. (Photo courtesy U.S. Justice Department)