WILMINGTON, N.C. (WGHP) — A Randolph County man will be spending the next 18 months in prison, according to the Department of Justice.

James Freeman, 48, of Franklinville, admitted to supplying turtles to middlemen throughout the country so that he could smuggle them into Asia. Freeman both collected the turtles himself and hired poachers to illegally obtain turtles throughout North Carolina.

Freeman trafficked 722 eastern box turtles, 122 box turtles and three wood turtles, receiving at least $121,000 in payment for them. The DOJ says the market value of those turtles in Asia is over $1.5 million.

Freeman’s possessed and sold the turtles in violation of North Carolina laws as well as the federal Lacey Act, which forbids interstate commerce of wildlife that was illegally taken.

The eastern box turtle is North Carolina’s state reptile and is native to the forests of the East Coast and Midwest. The spotted turtle and wood turtle are both semi-aquatic and are native to the eastern United States and Great Lakes region.

Poaching has devastating impacts on these species due to their low hatchling survival rates and how long it takes for them to reach sexual maturity. They are in high demand in the domestic and foreign pet trade market, where they are often resold for thousands of dollars.

All three species are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES allows for international legislation protecting species that are threatened by trade. The turtles are listed in Appendix II of CITES which protects “wildlife, fish and plant species that are not presently threatened with extinction but may become so their trade is not regulated.”

The United States is one of the nearly 183 nations that have signed the CITES treaty.

On Sept. 30, 2020, Freeman plead guilty to trafficking turtles in violation of the Lacey Act. On Wednesday, he was handed his 18-month sentence as well as a $25,000 fine to the Lacey Act reward fund. Freeman will also be on supervised release for three years after his prison sentence and will be prohibited from owning any wildlife without documentation of origin during that time.

“The Department of Justice is committed to protecting our native species from international trafficking,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Today’s sentence is the latest example that there are severe consequences to those who violate the Lacey Act by exploiting turtles.”

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement, considers the illegal collection and commercialization of native reptiles to include eastern box turtles a high priority, and we will continue to work closely with our state partners and the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute these important cases,” said Assistant Director Edward Grace of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Office of Law Enforcement.