Poaching in the Pines
By Jason Howell
When the illegal business of poaching is brought up in media, it is most often in reference to the large mammals of the African Plains, the rare species of the Amazon, or the last of the great cats in Asia, but right here in the Pinelands National Reserve we face many of the same threats to our iconic species. Most notably, the Northern Pine Snake, the Timber Rattle Snake, Spotted turtles, Box Turtles, and juvenile American eels. In 2009, the NY Department of Environmental Conservation revealed a secret network of reptile smugglers in the Long Island Pine Barrens Preserve and New York State with connections to New Jersey, Maryland, Louisiana, and Ontario, Canada. Their investigation revealed part of the world of illegal trade in endangered and threatened species native to the Pine Barrens. The investigation began when an entire population of Spotted-Turtles that was being studied abruptly vanished. Investigators made connections at reptile shows where enthusiasts meet to buy, sell, and admire species. While the majority of those that attend these shows are law-abiding and conservation minded, it is also true that there are those who are willing to break the law in pursuit of rare species or a lucrative sale.
In 2013, two Florida reptile dealers were caught smuggling Timber Rattlesnakes that they illegally caught in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. They were once hosts of a Discovery Channel Reality TV Show “Swamp Brothers”, showing that even well-known enthusiasts may not always have good intentions. In 2015, a Jersey City man plead guilty to selling Box-Turtles, Spotted Turtles, and Wood Turtles online and then shipping them in concealed packages to in-state and out of state buyers. Online sales have been a shown to be a driver of the illegal reptile trade and some websites may contain coded advertisements for those searching for rare species. According to Pine Snake researcher Joanna Burger and Bob Zappalorti, in some years of study, up to 40% of Northern Pine Snake nests were dug up by poachers. (Burger, Zappalorti 1992)
In 2013, two Florida reptile dealers were caught smuggling Timber Rattlesnakes that they illegally caught in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
For wildlife lovers, we have to be careful not to share information on where we have located a threatened or endangered species. If you are going to take cell-phone or GPS camera enabled photographs of wildlife or rare plants, you must ensure that the GPS tagging function on your device is turned off. With an IPhone, it is as simple as selecting “Settings”, “Location Services”, “Camera”, “Never”. Ignoring this rule could put the creature you are admiring and it’s offspring at great risk. Never take a picture of what may be a threatened or endangered species without first turning off this function. If you return to an area where you have found wildlife, be aware of who you bring with you. Understand that even if this is someone you trust greatly, they may return to the same area with others who have not been vetted for their conservation ethics or social media self-control. Know also that not all poaching is for commercial purposes, some take wildlife to have as caged pets. Others may hold on to an animal for a time and then release it later, but moving a Box Turtle a few miles could be a death sentence because of the risk it faces from roads and other factors on route to its home range.
Preventing poaching is a substantial challenge for overstretched Fish and Wildlife Conservation Officers and Park Police and it is important for citizens to know how to help reduce this impact. While in the field, we need to ask ourselves questions when we see others who seem to be searching for something. “Does this person look like an average hiker, botanist, hunter or fisherman?” Do they seem like they are trying to conceal their behavior? Do they have specialized equipment such as dip nets, traps, or snake hooks? Although many who have these tools might be legitimate trappers, hobbyists, and professionals, it is important not just to assume this is the case. Although you should never confront someone in the field that you may suspect is engaged in poaching, you should note the time of the sighting, location or GPS coordinates, description of the individual, and call 1-877-WARN-DEP. According to Conservation Officers, some poachers have gotten away after concerned citizens have told poachers that law-enforcement was on the way or gave away an indication of suspicion. This is equally important to be aware of on social media, where photos of illegal activity may be posted and used by Conservation Officers for evidence. Do not inform someone that you have alerted authorities or that you are suspicious of their post because they may simply delete the evidence. According to NJ Conservation Officers, poachers are becoming more adept in their tactics. Knowing that a CO or a Park Police officer could monitor a parked vehicle, poachers may be dropped off by a helper and remain in cell-phone contact in order to be picked up at a later time after acquiring the species they were after. These tactics are making it more important than ever that citizens are aware of this issue in order to help the law enforcement effort.
How you can help.
1. Be Aware.
2. Call 1-877-WARN-DEP with location, description of individuals, but do not approach
3. If you wish to become more involved in monitoring, recording, and reporting, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
One important bill that will soon be coming for a vote is A2763/ S1933 (Mazzeo, Sweeney). This bill will introduce New Jersey into the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact that functions to “recognize the suspension of wildlife license privileges of any person whose license privileges have been suspended by a participating state and treat that suspension as if it had occurred in their state”. Call your representatives and let them know you support this bill.
Senator Lesniak, who introduced the bill that made New Jersey the first in the nation to ban the sale of ivory, just succeeded again as Governor Christie signed two bills that will curtail the import or sale of animals or parts of animals that are threatened or endangered.
S-977/A-2447 (Lesniak, Sarlo/Eustace, Holley, Gusciora) – Prohibits possession, transport, import, export, processing, sale or shipment of parts and products of certain animal species threatened with extinction
S-978/A-2510 (Lesniak, Sarlo/Eustace, Holley, Gusciora) – Prohibits possession and transport of parts and products of certain animals at PA-NY-NJ airports and port facilities
Burger, J. and R.T. Zappalorti. 1992. Philopatry and nesting phenology of pine snakes Pituophis melanoleucus in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. (1992) 30:331–336.