On Jan. 12, 2023, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Division of Law Enforcement (DLE) filed charges against eight individuals, ranging from second degree misdemeanors to third-degree felonies related to the illegal trafficking of venomous and prohibited snakes.
The FWC has been receiving intelligence reports and complaints indicating that a black market exists for the sale and purchase of illegal and highly dangerous venomous reptiles in Florida. In 2020, the FWC initiated a long-term investigation with undercover investigators to determine the extent of this illegal activity and hold violators accountable.
The illegal sale, purchase, transport and caging of these regulated animals pose a significant public safety threat, undermines legitimate captive wildlife dealers operating legally and threatens the long-term well-being of state wildlife populations. If these illegal and dangerous nonnative species were to escape, they could easily live and breed in Florida’s subtropical climate.
Over the course of the investigation, nearly 200 snakes, consisting of 24 species from seven different regions of the globe, were purchased or sold by FWC undercover investigators to or from wildlife traffickers. Some of those species include the inland taipan, bushmaster, rhinoceros viper, African bush viper, Gaboon viper, green mamba, eyelash viper, multiple species of spitting cobra, forest cobra, puff adder and saw-scaled vipers. Trafficking activity was unpermitted, and the subjects involved showed a complete disregard for the regulatory framework designed to keep Floridians safe.
“Some of these snakes are among the most dangerous in the world,” said Maj. Randy Bowlin, FWC DLE Investigations and Intelligence Section Leader. “Florida’s rules and laws are in place to protect the public and prevent tragedies from occurring.”
Much of the illegal activity was initiated on specialized websites or closed social media pages. Once these black-market deals were arranged, violators quickly transitioned to in-person meetings where they arranged to buy or sell potentially deadly species to undercover officers with full knowledge that they were unlicensed and could not purchase these snakes legally. Some of these individuals included wholesale dealers who imported large shipments of nonnative venomous snakes from multiple countries around the world. The FWC secured search warrants for many of the social media accounts to prove the illegal activity was occurring and identify additional subjects. Georgia DNR and the FWC also worked in conjunction on this investigation to target other suspects illegally transporting carloads of venomous snakes around the country in violation of multiple state laws. Covert meetings with officers from Georgia and Florida revealed that the suspects showed a complete disregard for this highly regulated activity.
“The actions of individuals such as the ones charged today make our jobs at VENOM 1 and 2 only that much harder,” said Dr. Benjamin Abo, Primary investigator and Medical Director of Venom 1 and 2 Venom Response Units. “We fight every day to keep people alive and minimize permanent complications after a tragic bite occurs. The rules for the transportation, caging and handling of these animals are in place for important reasons.”
As often happens with long term investigations, non-wildlife crimes were documented by FWC investigators. “We’ve seen time and again that individuals who will break one law do not limit themselves to only one area of illegal activity,” said FWC DLE Director Colonel Roger Young. “Documented violations range from conservation second-degree misdemeanors to third-degree felony possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.”
This lengthy investigation developed additional suspects both in and out of Florida. FWC investigators realized early into the investigation that the black market for venomous reptiles in Florida was robust, and subjects identified in the operation were dealing reptiles frequently and in high numbers, often to or from unpermitted individuals. Caging, labeling, transport and handling rules were also often ignored by subjects and cited accordingly in today’s action.
“Some of the individuals apprehended by this operation are established dealers of snakes,” said FWC Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto. “Our law enforcement officers will continue to hold accountable those who disregard the rules which protect our natural resources of the state.”
Over the course of the investigation, FWC Investigations leadership made the determination to allow some violations to sunset due to statutes of limitations, in order to cast a wider net for additional violators. Hundreds of additional misdemeanor level violations were observed during the operation which were not charged in today’s activities.
Violations charged during this operation do not take into account that many of these snakes were probably sourced illegally from their home country of origin. A well established tactic for black market dealers is to launder illegally procured snakes through a properly permitted facility, so they may be sold without divulging their true origin.
“During this investigation, officers saw and heard disturbing evidence of widespread illegal activity, not the least of which were individuals who indicated that they were releasing or planning to release prohibited reptiles into nearby native habitat to establish a readily accessible wild breeding population,” said Investigations Section Captain Van Barrow.
Wildlife trafficking ranks fourth behind, drugs, weapons and humans in global activity, and is often a nexus for other illegal activity. There are many different estimates of the value of illicit wildlife trafficking worldwide. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, illicit wildlife trafficking is estimated to be between $7.8 billion and $10 billion per year.
The arrests included Dylan Isaac Levin, 30, of Palm Beach Gardens, who was documented making multiple illegal purchases and sales of venomous reptiles in Palm Beach County. He reportedly falsified required records regarding venomous reptiles and was involved in the sale of a controlled substance.
Levin was documented making multiple illegal purchases and sales of venomous reptiles. He falsified required records regarding venomous reptiles and was involved in the sale of a controlled substance. Palm Beach County violations include:
• Sale of controlled substance (third-degree felony),
• Sale of venomous reptile to unpermitted individual (first-degree misdemeanor),
• Improper venomous reptile records (second-degree misdemeanor),
Also among those arrested was Jorge Javier Gonzalez, 23, of Miami, who was-charged with the illegal trafficking of prohibited species, specifically Burmese pythons. On multiple occasions, FWC investigators documented the illegal sale and transport of these invasive prohibited species.