Undercover with snakes and salamanders

baby snapping turtle

As an adult, this guy could go for as much as $45 on the black market.

Earlier this year, the state Department of Environmental Conservation announced it had busted a bunch of people as part of an undercover investigation into the black market trade of protected reptiles and amphibians.

Capt. Michael Van Durme, one of the leaders of "Operation Shellshock" will be speaking at SUNY Cobleskill tonight about his experiences with the investigation.

We figured you can't go undercover into the world of reptile and amphibian smuggling without coming away with some interesting stories, so we bounced a few questions his way. Capt. Van Durme sent back answers about microchipped turtles, priceless snakes, and nuns shopping for pythons.

How big a problem are black market sales of amphibians and reptiles in New York State?

That is a hard question to answer. We documented far more illegal commercialization than we expected, but in no way did we document all of the cases. There are thousands of people that are fascinated by these animals and are driven to collect and possess as many as they can.

It is important to note that in some places with small populations the unlawful collection and sale of as few as six animals may mean the end of that entire population.

Any instances of populations in the state that have been destroyed by this activity?

That's hard to say. One of the first cases involved a population of 30 spotted turtles in Niagara County. The turtles had unique markings on their heads. We put computer chips -- like you would use to identify your dog -- in every turtle.

We checked back the following spring and all the turtles were gone. If you take out an entire population of deer in an area, deer from surrounding areas will fill in the empty space. But turtles aren't like deer. Their populations won't return like that.

This was in 2005, so it was still legal to collect these animals. A new law prohibiting that took effect in 2006.

What are some of the native New York species that end up in these
illegal deals?

Turtles: Spotted turtles, North American wood turtles, box turtles, snapping turtles, painted turtles

Salamanders: red salamanders, spotted salamanders

Snakes: copperheads, timber rattlesnakes, Eastern Massasauga rattlesnakes, hognose snakes, black rat snakes

How much can some of these animals go for?

We found a salamander could go for as little as $20. A 20-pound snapping turtle could be sold for $35-$45. A spotted turtle for $125-$250. Wood turles for $250.

In one instance, a guy in Ontario took 33 Eastern Massasaugas [smuggled across the border into Niagra Falls in his van] -- a whole population. These snakes are so rare that they're considered priceless. Those animals were recovered and they're now at the Toronto Zoo. And in the spring, they'll be returned to their habitat.


Where do the animals in these sales end up?

Snapping turtles ended up as meat in Maryland and then sold all over the world, or on turtles farms in China. Snakes, salamanders and other turtles end in the pet trade worldwide.


A lot of people probably don't know that DEC is involved in this sort of work -- how typical are these sorts of investigations?

The Division of Law Enforcement has always investigated unlawful taking and selling of wildlife, including undercover investigations into the unlawful commercialization of deer, bear, waterfowl, fish, etc.

Shellshock was the first significant undercover investigation into the commercialization of "Herps" or any other non-game species.


Why focus on reptiles and amphibians?

We usually start investigations because we know there's a problem. That wasn't really the case with "Shellshock." But I went to a conference in 2006 and heard all these stories from other states. And I talked with my boss and he asked, "How big is the problem? Who are the bad guys?" And I said, I don't know, but if people are doing this in other states, they're probably doing it here, too.

Shellshock documented in excess of 2000 separate violations -- many outside of New York. We ended up charging 28 people. Some people had taken maybe one turtle and didn't know they were breaking the law -- we used our discretion in those cases and educated them about the law. We really concentrated on the people doing this on a large scale.


What's the strangest thing you encountered as part of this investigation?

Oh, boy. Just the culture of the people in involved.

There are two different trade shows that we went to -- one in White Plains, New York and the other in Hamburg, Pennsylvania.

The first time I went to the show in Westchester County, there was a nun in her habit. And she's looking at this table of ball pythons -- they're like a designer snake now, they've been bred in all sorts of different colors. And here's this nun with these three boys discussing which color snake they want to buy next.

And then around the corner there was a guy all dressed in black with tattoos and he has an entourage. And then a very yuppie couple with their two kids. So, the people at these shows come from all walks of life. (And many of the animals sold at these shows come legal farms in places like Florida.)

We've arrested people who were living in mom and dad's basement -- and we also arrested some very successful executives.

___

Capt. Van Durme says DEC hopes great public awareness will lead to fewer black market sales of these animals. He says all violations of the Environmental Conservation Law can be reported anonymously at 877-457-5680.

Tonight's talk starts at 7 pm in auditorium of SUNY-Cobleskill's Bouck Hall.

This interview was conducted via email and phone. It's been edited and condensed.

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