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Old 08-26-2006, 03:35 AM   #1
Clay Davenport
Poachers squeeze the fun out of snake collecting

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. When the sun sets on Southern California's Whitewater Canyon, it comes alive with snakes, frogs and lizards out to enjoy the warm desert air. It also comes alive with reptile enthusiasts and poachers.

The enthusiasts obey the law and troll for pets; the poachers ignore the law and snatch up slithering creatures to sell on the global market for wildlife. There's a license for the enthusiasts; there's not one for the poachers. The former would watch Snakes on a Plane with fascination; the latter with dollar signs in their eyes.

The canyon and countless ponds, streams and prairies on public lands across the USA are the front lines of a cat-and-mouse game between reptile poachers and the people who watch over protected wildlife.

"Some nights are busy, some nights you don't see anything," said Kyle Chang, a game warden for the California Department of Fish and Game, who quietly stakes out the Whitewater Canyon several times a year.

On a busy night, Chang might make 10 stops, most to verify collectors are carrying a state fishing license, a prerequisite for catching reptiles such as the Whitewater rosy boa, a docile snake that makes a good pet.

Chang uses a rope taped to resemble a California king snake as a decoy. When somebody stops for the fake snake, he pulls up and checks for a license, bag limit or other violations.

While legitimate collectors sometimes called "herpers" don't cause problems, unlicensed poachers gathering for commercial gain can decimate an area.

Poachers flock to places such as Whitewater and Borrego canyons and Joshua Tree National Park in California and plentiful hunting grounds in Arizona, South Carolina, West Texas and countless spots in between. "It is definitely a problem," said Jeff Lovich, deputy director of the U.S. Geological Survey's Southwest Biological Science Center in Arizona.

Chang says California fines can be as low as $10 for people who forgot their license at home to $385 or more for blatant poaching offenses.

In nearby Joshua Tree National Park, federal penalties for pilfering wildlife can include jail time and fines up to $250,000, depending on the types and quantity of reptiles taken. Joe Zarki, a park spokesman, said penalties vary depending on whether the offender is part of a commercial ring or simply a child catching a lizard for a pet.

Rangers at Joshua Tree National Park say it's tough to quantify how much poaching occurs. That's because it's not enough to catch poachers with the tools of the trade snake hooks, pillowcases, cages, Zarki said. "One of the problems is you have to actually catch people with the reptiles in hand," he said.

Lovich said Gila monsters are popular poaching targets. Named after the Gila River Basin in Arizona, they are one of two kinds of poisonous lizards. Those bred in captivity can be traded legally, but a price tag that can exceed $1,500 on the open market makes wild Gila monsters, which are a protected species, attractive to poachers.

Venomous snakes, and their non-poisonous cousins, are popular, too. The rosy boa sells on the Internet for $100 to $300.

"There is ... a bit of a thrill for people because there is a great deal of phobia among the general population," said Jack Crayon, a biologist and former herper (from the Greek word for reptile) who lives in Indio, Calif. "There is some satisfaction in handling something a lot of people are afraid of."

Chang says poachers occasionally will go to great lengths to snatch wildlife. He described finding people in Whitewater Canyon with frogs, toads and lizards stuffed into jars and snakes loose on the floorboard.

To sell native California reptiles within California, sellers need to produce documentation the reptiles were bred in captivity, not caught in the wild, Crayon said. California reptiles, however, can crop up without documentation in other states, and Lovich said he has encountered people offering wild-caught reptiles for sale.

Legal commercial operations, such as turtle farms in the southeastern United States, can lead to poaching, said Allen Salzberg, the New York-based publisher of Herp Digest.

"There is constant pressure for wild-caught males and females to bring into these farms," he said.

For some people, though, collecting reptiles isn't about money or thrill.

"They are so fun," said Mathew Bartol, 22, of Valencia, Calif., as he handled an 18-inch rosy boa he picked up on Whitewater Canyon Road. "What makes it so fun is the search."

Bartol, who had a license and could legally catch the boa, chatted with Chang and two other collectors. They talked about the weather and collecting conditions.

Chang said Bartol, who was collecting with his dad and a family friend, is more representative of snake-enthusiasts than poachers.

"Some people like fishing over hunting. Some people like reptile collecting over fishing," Chang said. "Like any sport you have good people, bad people and people who walk the line."

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