A banded rock rattlesnake coils up on cool patio tiles
outside Cecil Schwalbe’s office while checking its
environment for threats. Photo by Hayleigh Daugherty
Rachael Worthington
Poaching exotic animals is a huge enterprise around the globe, and Arizona is a hot spot for rare reptiles. 

Animal poaching is the second largest illegal trade in the world, second only to the drug trade, said Dr. herpetologist Cecil Schwalbe, a herpetologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. 

Even though this market is so large, only limited statistics and information exist about poaching because it is difficult to tell what trafficking is legal and which is illegal.

“It’s probably more common than we know,” said Officer Diane Tilton, a wildlife manager for Arizona Game and Fish who tracks down poachers.
Many reptiles in Arizona , such as the Gila monster, the rosy boa and the twin-spotted rattlesnake, are protected by state law, but the problem of reptile poaching still continues.   Laws that are not consistent from state to state are the cracks that poachers exploit. It affects scientists out in the field of study.

“I won’t even do studies on rattlesnake dens anymore on public lands because of the hide hunters,” Schwalbe said. 

The people he refers to as “hide hunters” are poachers who search for reptiles in order to use or sell their skins. Schwalbe has stopped going to the snakes’ dens in order to keep from giving away their hiding places. 
Though Arizona reptiles bred in captivity from other states are available for purchase, poaching is still a common practice way to obtain rare snakes and lizards.

In order to capture and keep these reptiles, poachers have to find loopholes in the law. 

With a hunting license it is legal to take reptiles that are not protected by state law and federal law, but it is illegal to sell any Arizona wildlife. With this license, a hunter may only collect or possess a certain number of reptiles, with the exception of a select few species that are unlimited.  For example, if the limit is 10 of a species, and a hunter already owns six, he or she may only collect four more.

The first venomous reptile protected in North America was the Gila monster in 1952. 
A large number ofMany people believe that more species should be protected under federal law. Collette Adkins Giese, a herpetofauna staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that it would be easier to prosecute poachers if species were protected across the nation, rather than in specific states. 

If the laws were consistent across the U.S., there would be fewer loopholes for smugglers to discover. Animals are not protected under federal law unless their species are in peril, according to Adkins Giese. Courts can impose large fines or prison time for poachers who take endangered species.

Whether poaching of reptiles such as the Gila monster will lead to imbalances in the environment remains a question. But some captive breeders in other states, such as Mark Seward of Colorado, don’t believe it will cause a large impact. 

Poachers typically “herp” (search for reptiles) at night following the monsoon season in the Southwest.
“Habitat loss is a much more significant impact on the wild Gila population than any level of poaching,” he said. If a Gila monster or rattlesnake is relocated, studies suggest that the animal will do poorly in its new surroundings, —and possibly die. 

Other breeders don’t believe poaching has a large effect on the overall species. “Gila monsters have been captively produced for over 30 years,” said Robbie Keszey, a partner of Glades Herps and star of Discovery Channel’s show “Swamp Brothers.”

The people who remove these creatures from their natural habitats often come up with creative ways to hide the animals within their homes. Schwalbe recalls an instance while working with the Arizona Game and Fish Department where one man harboring a venomous viper cut a hole in the wall of his house, and the snake stayed slithering around inside of histhe walls. Schwalbe and his former employers had to confiscate the snake. They , and had quite a “humorous time” attempting to remove the illegal non-native snake from the house.

Reptiles that are removed from their environment for more than 24 hours cannot be returned to the wild, Tilton said. This is because the animals may have come into contact with other reptiles and species with diseases. Once they the reptiles are removed from their natural habitat for this amount of time, they must be kept as captive animals for life, and are prohibited from reproducing with the rest of the population. Some of these displaced reptiles are donated to museums, such as the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson. Others are given to citizens who have applied for a special permit to possess them.

To acquire a captive breeding permit, applicants must pay a $200 fee. However, tThey must list all of the species to be bred, their experience taking care of that species, a description of the breeding facilities, and the supplier of their breeding pair supplier. These permits, which are not available in Arizona, and are distributed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Some species, such as the Gila monster, also are difficult to breed, especially in captivity. Herps Captive breeders mightwho are beginning to breed reptiles may start off with an illegally obtained breeding pair. It can be fairly difficult to find a pair of the reptiles to legally own legally, so some take advantage of the loopholes. 

Reptile enthusiasts who decide to illegally obtain the reptiles illegally for their new breeding businesses often collect the creatures with an Arizona Game and Fish hunting license, Schwalbe said. They They then take them the reptiles out of state back to the location where they hold their breeding permits. When filling out their applications for permits, the poachers claim that they found their reptiles outside of Arizona. One common location includes the New Mexico border, where it is legal to capture certain wildlife, such as the Sonoran mountain king snake, that is illegal to capture in Arizona. 

Law enforcement has no way to determine the origin of the reptiles, and t. The poachers are committing a federal crime under the Lacey Act by by committing a state crime and crossing interstate lines with an illegally obtained animal. 

Visit Consumers can check the Arizona Game and Fish pamphlet at the end of this article for details about reptile and amphibian hunting regulations: http://www.azgfd.gov/pdfs/h_f/regulations/ReptileAmphibian.pdf


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