Former zoo employee sentenced for trafficking endangered Galapagos tortoises

Joshua Taylor Lucas of Austin, Texas, admitted in court on Wednesday that he stole several tortoise hatchlings

Louise Hall
Wednesday 10 March 2021 11:09 GMT
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A former employee of the Oklahoma City Zoo has been found guilty of trafficking endangered Galapagos tortoises.

Joshua Taylor Lucas of Austin, Texas, admitted in court on Wednesday that he stole several tortoise hatchlings while working at the zoo, according to the Department of Justice.

Lucas, who specialized in curation of amphibians and reptiles, pleaded guilty at a combined plea and sentencing hearing to a single-count felony of wildlife trafficking. He was given three years probation and ordered to pay over $30,000 in restitution to the zoo.

Lucas was charged in April 2020 with violating the Lacey Act, which prohibits individuals from selling, transferring, or purchasing any fish, wildlife, or plant that has been acquired illegally, among other offenses.

The former employee further admitted on Wednesday that he sold and shipped 21 hatchlings to a now-deceased Nevada resident who was previously under indictment for the illegal trafficking of Galapagos tortoises, officials said.

Following the plea, US District Judge Bernard Jones sentenced Lucas to serve three years of probation, perform 100 hours of community service, and pay $32,500 restitution.

"The exploitation and trafficking of endangered wildlife for personal profit is unacceptable," said Acting US Attorney, Robert J. Troester.

"I commend the steadfast efforts of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the prosecutors in this case, who are committed to hold traffickers of endangered animals accountable."

Phillip Land, special agent in charge for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said agents “make it a priority to identify, investigate, and dismantle illegal trafficking networks”.

"This investigation involved the illegal traffic of endangered Galapagos tortoises for the exotic pet trade,” he added.

“This iconic species is the largest tortoise in the world, with hatchling-sized juveniles carrying a black market value starting at $5,000 per animal.”

The Oklahoma City Zoo told The Independent: “This highly unusual incident has shocked and saddened the entire Zoo staff and has strengthened our vigilance to care for and protect the wildlife entrusted to us.”

They added: “Since learning of the theft in March 2020, the Zoo has modified internal caretaking policies, security procedures, and record-keeping for managing this species to prevent this from happening in the future.”

Galapagos tortoise populations have suffered huge declines due to exploitation by whalers, buccaneers, and fur sealers resulting in the loss of between 100,000 and 200,000 of the species, according to Galapagos Conservation Trust.

At least two species of giant tortoise are thought to have gone extinct, the trust says, with many of the subspecies now listed as endangered or critically endangered.

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