Law enforcement working to capture illegal reptile poachers

In a follow-up to the story FOX 10 Phoenix aired Monday night (see below), there exists another group of people who, while also referring to themselves as herpers, follow the laws, and don't harm any of the reptiles and animals.

Jeff Martineau, who refers to himself as a reptile enthusiast, has walked countless miles in desert terrain.

"I've been doing this, you know, since I was about -- since I was a little kid, and so growing up and doing it, you start meeting more and more people that do it, and you kind of learn the ropes a little bit," said Martinaeu. "We call it herping. Herpatology you know. So the slang term for it is herping. It's kind of a funny term, you know, if you don't know what it is already."

Martineau explores the desert, hoping to come across Arizona's most unique snakes, lizards, frogs, toads, and turtles.

"My main thing is photographs," said Martinaeu. "Photography, for me, it's a lot more rewarding to see the reptile leave. Go into it's hole, back to where it came from, in my opinion. You end up in the long run -- ten years later, you only end up with photographs anyway. You might as well be ethical about it and keep it wild."

Martineau's collection includes images he snapped of various snakes.

"There is a whole cadre of enthusiasts that are very much like birders," said Randy Babb, a biologist with Arizona Game and Fish. "They go out, they look for these animals, they photograph them, they catch them and release them. Sometimes they keep some of them as pets. They're all law abiding folks that are using wildlife legitimately, through all the legal avenues."

Babb also calls this group of reptile fanatics herpers, sometimes referring to them as citizen biologists who he says help the department catch people collecting, keeping, or selling reptiles illegally.

As mentioned in Monday's report, there are four species of rattlesnakes protected by law, including the Massagua, the Twin Spotted Rattlesnake, the Rock, and the Ridge Nose Rattlesnake. Gila Monsters and Leopard Frogs are also on that list.

Snakes sell for up to 1,000 on the illegal market, while Gila Monsters can bring in $1,400. Game and Fish investigators recently seized 54 snakes from a man outside of Yuma, and charges are pending.

"We trade information," said Babb. "We've got eyes everywhere and we're watching."

Enthusiasts herpers, like Martineau, serves as a set of eyes.

"It's interesting because sometimes collectors, they kind of think that we are in on it because we are looking for reptiles, and so sometimes, they will be kind of open," said Martinaeu. "We're from such and such, you know, they'll have loads and buckets of tupperwares in the back of their car full of snakes and lizards and things like that."

Martineau has come across illegal herpers -- or collectors, as he calls them, during his endeavors, making sure to report any forbidden activity to Arizona Game and Fish so the department can make sure everyone have a hunting license, and stays within legal collecting limits.

"This is low land desert scrub, you know, something that is common here would be like the sidewinder rattlesnake, the diamond back rattlesnake," said Martineau.

Maryineau says most people who take herping trips only want to experience these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat, and that he supports the laws that keep them there."

"I think it's extremely important to have Game and Fish monitor these laws," said Martinaeu. "There are different species of rattlesnake or reptiles that are very dependant on the habitat we have."

There's a large number of snakes that can legally be collected and kept, but you need a hunting license, and there are strict limits.

The Sonoran Desert is home to the most diverse reptile population in the country, and there's a group of people who take the animals out of their natural habitats for personal gain.

Some collect the reptiles, some sell them, and some do both. Arizona Game and Fish officials call them "Herpers". The illegal reptile trade is growing, and law enforcement is working overtime to stop it.

When undercover investigators from Game and Fish went in with a search warrant, they found dozens of plastic containers stacked on top of one another.

"This individual tended to have basically one or two species, mainly being Rosie Boas and Speckled Rattlesnakes," said the lead investigator. His identity is concealed because of the nature of his work.

The lead investigator says several dozen more containers were found on top of kitchen cabinets, in the garage, and the freezer. In all, 54 snakes were found.

"The limit for both of those species, the possession limit is four," said the lead investigator. "Four Rosy Boas in their possession, and also four Speckled Rattlesnakes."

This bust took place outside of Yuma, a small town that happens to be close to terrain with a high population of snakes. It seems to be drawing big attention from Herpers, like the man who lives at the place.

"Two subjects or a subject last night was bit in the hand by a snake," said the lead investigator..

The two poachers, according to officers, were in from Texas.

"During the conversation with them, we were able to determine they were in possession of several reptiles that had been collected here around the Yuma area, as well as other places," said the lead investigator.

"They are super popular in pet trade. This is a snake that collectors always hope to find and subsequently, they are animals that are bred captively that are in other states that are imported in Arizona," said Randy Babb, a biologist with Game and Fish. Babb says there are four species of rattlesnakes protected by law, and cannot be collected, bought or sold.

They include the Massagua, the Twin Spotted Rattlesnake, the Rock, and the Ridge Nose Rattlesnake. Gila Monsters and Leopard Frogs are also on that list.

According to Babb, the animals are a hot commodity in the illegal reptile trade. Snakes can sell for up to $1,000 on the illegal market, while Gila Monsters can sell for up to $1,400.

"Yes, depending on how unique the animal is or how pretty it is, that has a lot to do with desirability, and the pet trade in international wildlife trade is massive," said Babb.

So massive, in fact, that Babb says snakes from Arizona are shipped to California, Florida, South Africa, The Netherlands, Germany, and other parts of Europe.

"Some of these animals can be legally collected and kept as pets, and enjoyed by hobbyists and children and whoever with proper permits," said Babb. "It's usually a hunting license."

The license, and the limitations it holds, is a small road block that Herpers try to navigate around.

Herpers would come to collect the reptiles in the most remote parts of Arizona mountains and deserts, and this is where law enforcement hopes to catch them. Game rangers would set up stings, and set out a decoy.

"We try to keep him out of harm's way as much as possible," said the undercover. "What I would generally do is I would usually put him in a cooler -- keep him cooler so he won't move as much. I would set him out on the side of the road and let him sit there, but if they do take him or collect him and put him into a bag, put him into a car, then we will make a stop farther down the road, whichever direction they are traveling."

Rangers also patrol areas known for Herping., and investigators frequent popular websites where reptiles are sold, as well as relying on word of mouth, which helped uncover the collection.

"Basically, possession charges, unlawful take charges, unlawful possession charges, because once you meet your limit, your possession limit four, you cannot collect anymore," said the undercover.

All the snakes were seized, in addition to cell phones, hard drives, and a computer. If more evidence is uncovered, more charges could be filed.

"I think over the last year, the number of warrants I've done and contacts I've made with some Herpers at their house or in the field, I'm well over 300 snakes right now, last year season, so its becoming a more commercial aspect," said the undercover.

There are a few big concerns for Game and Fish, such as the the illegal reptile trade could be leading to a decline in the population of many of these species. Another issue is the reptiles, once captured, cannot be released back into the wild, So they have to be kept by the department.