Virginia Regulations for Reptiles & Amphibians

In 2021, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation to provide greater protection for wild reptiles and amphibians. These species have been vulnerable to a number of increasing pressures in recent years, including habitat loss, disease, and illegal wildlife trafficking.

The Law: Virginia Administrative Code 4VAC15-360-10

In July 2021, legislation was passed to update the existing state code that allowed a person to legally possess up to five individual, non-endangered native species of reptile or amphibian. Ambiguity in the code meant that it was easily skirted by poachers who could claim that some animals in their possession belonged to family members or other people living at the same address.

The updated law now states that there can be “no more than one individual of any native or naturalized … species of amphibian or reptile per physical address.” When this new regulation went into effect, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) allowed people with legally obtained native reptile and amphibian pets (under the law’s previous iteration) to keep these animals as long as they were registered with DWR by January 1, 2022. Animals that were not declared by that deadline are now considered to be possessed illegally.

The updated code now also notes that individual reptiles and/or amphibians cannot be collected from state or federal land and that animals collected from the wild cannot include any species listed under the Species of Greatest Conservation Need as defined by the 2015 Virginia Wildlife Action Plan. These stipulations significantly reduce the number of species that can be legally possessed at all, including those species of turtles most often poached in the illegal pet trade: the Woodland Box Turtle, Spotted Turtle, Bog Turtle, Wood Turtle, and the Northern Diamond-backed Terrapin.

The Illegal Pet Trade

One of the primary goals of the new regulations in Virginia is to impede the proliferation of the illegal wildlife trade, particularly for turtles. In their article “Shell Game,” Virginia State Herpetologists J.D. Kleopfer and Dr. Jennifer Sevin detail the immense pressure that turtles have been under for years, as tens of thousands of turtles (and their eggs) are taken from the wild to be sold for food, traditional medicines and religious ceremonies, souvenirs, pets, and other products. The relative ease of capturing and smuggling turtles in comparison with many other wild animals makes them especially vulnerable to poachers.

TRAFFIC, an international organization concerned with trade in wild species, estimates that the black market for wildlife worldwide is a $23 billion-dollar-a-year industry, and a significant part of that trade comes in and out of the United States annually. A potential reason for the persistence of this large-scale problem is that the penalties for trafficking wild animals have not been severe enough to act as a deterrent when weighed against potential profits. Thankfully, law enforcement and the justice system have begun to recognize the threat that illegal trade in wildlife has on our ecosystem and are working to enact harsher penalties for poaching and smuggling.

Over the last decade, efforts to combat the illegal sale of turtles captured in the United States and abroad have increased. For example, the Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation’s  Collaborative to Combat the Illegal Trade in Turtles (CCITT) initiative is focused on understanding, preventing, and eliminating the illegal collection and trade of turtles in North America. This group, composed of agency biologists, law enforcement, academic professionals, and NGO representatives, focuses on law enforcement and education as well as confiscation response and returning animals back to the wild.

Impact & Significance

While turtles are not the only animals illegally taken from the wild, their populations can be disproportionately affected by poaching. Turtles are slow-growing and long-lived, and they become sexually mature at a much slower rate in comparison to many other animals. Their low success rate of hatchlings means that removing even one turtle from its habitat can have a disastrous impact on the population of the species.

Reptiles and amphibians—like all wild animals—play a vital role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem, and removing them from their habitats can have disastrous consequences for not only the individual animals, but also for the populations of those species, and our entire ecosystem. This is a global issue, and one with a substantial impact on our region in Virginia – Southern Appalachia is one of the most biodiverse temperate areas in the United States.

What You Can Do

  • Never take a turtle (or any other reptile) from the wild as a pet. Not only is it now illegal to remove many reptile species from the wild, but it’s also critical to help all turtles stay wild in their home habitats.
  • Don’t buy a turtle as a pet. While there may be some permitted, ethical reptile breeders, there is an increasing amount of illegal turtle trafficking activity. Turtles less than four inches in size cannot be sold or distributed in the United States. If you are starting a conversation with a reptile breeder, always ask to see permits or contact your state’s wildlife agency for advice.
  • If you find an injured reptile, please take it to a permitted rehabilitator or veterinarian and please make a careful note of where it was found. Once treated and ready for release, the exact location of rescue will be essential to return the animal to the wild.
  • If you find a reptile or amphibian, particularly one of special concern, don’t post the location on social media. Those involved in the illegal wildlife trade have used public reports to locate and take turtles in the wild.
  • If you suspect any illegal activity, including online sales, report it to the wildlife crimes division of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (or your state agency if outside of Virginia) and/or the United States Fish & Wildlife Service.