Wildlife trader with SC connection arrested after deadly snakes sent to Florida

A man with a history of involvement in the reptile trade in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina has been arrested and charged with illegally trafficking in turtles and venomous snakes, as well as unlawfully possessing firearms, authorities said Thursday.

Ashtyn Michael Rance, identified as a resident of Dalzell, SC, faces time in prison if convicted of the charges brought last month, authorities said. The maximum sentence for the wildlife and guns charges is 15 years and a $250,000 fine for each charge.

A federal grand jury in Georgia indicted Rance on March 9, alleging that in 2018 he shipped 15 venomous Gaboon vipers to Florida.

The indictment, unsealed this week, also said he sold 16 spotted turtles and three eastern box turtles to a buyer in Florida. Rance is accused of shipping the reptiles from Valdosta, Ga., where he once lived, in falsely labeled packages. That is a common tactic in the black market wildlife trade.

The indictment includes federal firearms charges following the discovery by authorities of a Bushmaster carbine .223 rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun at his Valdosta home three years ago.

The 34-year-old Rance, a convicted felon who is barred by federal law from possessing guns, has run into trouble with authorities before over his alleged involvement in the illicit wildlife trade.

In 2018, an investigation of the black market wildlife trade by The State newspaper found that Rance had imported 220 snakes from Africa to Atlanta with plans to sell them in South Carolina at a wildlife show.

Snakes bound for South Carolina included 20 spitting cobras, 15 bush vipers, 100 Gaboon vipers and a pair of black forest cobras, according to an import permit obtained by The State at the time. All of those snakes have venom deadly enough to kill or permanently injure a person.

Georgia officials had required Rance, who had run-ins with Florida wildlife authorities for years, to take the venomous snakes to an address in rural Saluda County within 24 hours of the serpents landing in Atlanta, The State reported. But Georgia state investigators said he didn’t get rid of all the snakes in South Carolina, a point Rance disputed.

When they searched Rance’s property in Valdosta in the spring of 2018, they found dozens of venomous serpents, Georgia authorities said at the time.

In The State’s investigation of the black market wildlife trade, Rance was identified by authorities in South Carolina as a major southeastern wildlife trader. At the time, Rance said he had tried to follow the law. He also told the newspaper he was giving up the wildlife trading business.

“There is no way to do this business legally doing what I do,’’ he told The State. “There is always a stupid gray line that (you are) going to cross and they have an option to charge you or not.’’

An attempt to reach Rance was unsuccessful Friday.

Rance served time in a Florida prison from July 2007 to February 2009 on a charge of battering a child. He also has been arrested on wildlife charges multiple times in Florida.

His latest run in with the law drew sharp words from federal authorities, who said illegal wildlife trafficking is a serious crime.

“Rance’s reckless shipment of venomous snakes and illegal possession of firearms demonstrate the dangers of wildlife trafficking,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jean E. Williams of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “I applaud our federal and state law enforcement partners for keeping the public and delivery couriers safe.”

Federal authorities said law enforcement departments in Georgia and South Carolina assisted in the investigation that led to Rance’s arrest.

“Together, we have stopped highly venomous snakes, and our nation’s own wildlife, from being smuggled,’’ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent in charge Stephen Clark said in a news release.

The spotted turtle is native to the eastern United States and Great Lakes area. The eastern box turtle is found across the South and East, including in South Carolina. The Gaboon viper is an African snake whose venom can cause shock, loss of consciousness or death in humans, authorities said in Thursday’s news release.

The black market wildlife trade is a multi-billion dollar business worldwide. The trade in reptiles has been a particular concern for authorities in the Southeast, a region with an abundance of turtles sought as pets and food in Asia. American traders also will bring in exotic reptiles from other countries for resale in the United States. Some of the trade is legal, but much of it is not.