Dave Prival picks his way across a tumbledown slope, carefully peering into crevices among the broken rocks. We’re alpine-high on a southern Arizona mountain range that shall remain nameless, for reasons you’ll soon understand. It’s been another year of crackly drought, and wildlife is feeling the heat. That includes the twin-spotted rattlesnakes that Prival and his small crew of fellow herpetologists have been catching, measuring and marking each July for the past 18 years. The snakes are drawn to this vast scree patch by their primary prey, Yarrow’s spiny lizards, which dart before us in flashes of green. Although the lizards are abundant, the snakes have experienced a slow but undeniable decline.
Suddenly, sensing movement, the scientist drops to a squat. Perhaps it was just a trick of the light. But it could have been a twin-spot: “As soon as they see you, they dive,” he explains with a sigh, adjusting the leather welder’s gloves needed for catching venomous snakes without becoming a statistic. He looks around, to see if anyone’s watching.
Western twin-spotteds are hardly the biggest rattlers, barely two feet long and thin as a thumb. But they’re pretty, with parallel, rust-colored dots trailing down their backs, and sleek, almond-shaped heads, and that makes them highly prized among collectors. As does the fact that taking them is prohibited by Arizona law. On popular internet reptile-trading sites such as kingsnake.com, a prime twin-spot can easily fetch $1,500.
And snake poachers know about Prival’s long-running research locations. As a result, his crew spends much of its field time chasing off guys who lurk around with snake hooks and canvas bags. “Everyone will say they just want to photograph the snakes,” Prival says. “So I’ll say to them, ‘Hey, this is a protected species. Can you leave your collecting gear in the trunk?’ But some people, when they think I’m not looking, will go take the gear back out of their trunk.”
Occasionally, his team even inadvertently helps the thieves. “Sometimes a snake will get away from us, and now we’ve shown them where a snake is,” he says. “It makes it pretty stressful.”
The twin-spot’s range is limited to a few high mountains in southern Arizona and northern Mexico, and climate change has already taken a toll. Less rain means fewer spiny lizards to eat, while rising temperatures force the snakes to move higher up. Now that they’ve reached top elevations, there’s nowhere else for them to go. Prival’s research population probably took another hit from the enormous Horseshoe Fire in 2011. He estimates that perhaps 70 twin-spotteds still dwell on this slope, down from an estimated 86 in 2009. Poaching is only making it worse. “If just seven of those snakes are taken by poachers,” he says, “that’s 10 percent of the population right there.”
Although collecting twin-spotted rattlesnakes is illegal in Arizona — and a federal law called the Lacey Act prohibits buying and selling protected wildlife — there’s little chance that thieves will be caught. Even if they are, they likely won’t pay more than a few hundred dollars in fines. For commercial dealers, who can earn thousands from a single animal, that’s simply part of business overhead. Meanwhile, the difficult task of proving that a snake was poached falls upon the authorities.
Nor are twin-spotted rattlesnakes the only targets. Arizona boasts 107 species of native reptiles — 49 lizards, six turtles and 52 snakes. Eleven of them, including highly coveted Gila monsters and Arizona ridge-nosed rattlesnakes, are protected by state law, arguably driving up the price and adding to their allure.
Internationally, the black market in wildlife is a multibillion-dollar industry, believed to rank only below drug trafficking in the amount of the money it generates. In turn, the illegal reptile trade may be second only to habitat loss as the greatest threat to species survival. It is a thriving subculture, with the animals sold online, at herp shows and, covertly, in shops. That provides a strong motivation to replenish inventories with poaching junkets to the Southwest.
“Southern Arizona is a hotbed for that kind of activity, especially with the montane snakes,” says Joshua Hurst, director of the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Operation Game Thief. But no one knows just how many reptiles are being snatched each year. “It’s one of those unknown things,” Hurst says. “We don’t have a clue.”
And bringing poachers to justice is a heartbreaking challenge. “The amount of effort it takes to catch somebody doing that is unbelievable,” he says. “We change our tactics, and they change their tactics.” Ploys have included the use of decoy Gila monsters, chilled down to immobilize them and placed beside roads frequented by nighttime thieves. “Then the poachers became privy to that,” he says. “They reach down and touch the (Gila monsters) to see if they’re cool or not. If they are cold, the poachers just get away from it and leave.”
Thieves often place stolen reptiles in ice chests and stash them in motel rooms or even roadside shrubbery for later retrieval. Sometimes, newly caught animals are quickly handed off to inconspicuous associates, perhaps an innocent-looking family driving down the road.
Still, from July 31, 2013, to Oct. 13, 2016, a 16-member Game and Fish team wrote 31 citations for illegal reptile taking in southern Arizona’s poaching hotspots. While that may not sound like much, Hurst notes that each citation can contain a fistful of violations, raising the stakes for thieves. Oftentimes, the cases are simply resolved with fines and never make it to court.
It helps when the federal government gets involved. Unfortunately, that’s not often: Cosme Lopez, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney for Arizona, couldn’t recall a single reptile case prosecuted by his office. And a Freedom of Information request to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revealed only a single illegal-take violation for all species of wildlife over the past three years across the Western states, including Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah, Nevada and Colorado. But that case involved a violation of the Endangered Species Act, rather than the Lacey Act.
Gene Elms is law enforcement branch chief for Arizona Game and Fish. When asked about the dealer’s assertions, he pauses. “If they are collected illegally, that label follows them throughout all the states,” he says. “But this shows the difficulty of tracing the trajectory of these reptiles, and proving that the person who is actually in possession of them knew they were stolen.” Another complication comes with the patchwork of state laws across the nation, which are often more lax than those in Arizona.
There lies the rub: The nation is a mélange of reptile regulations, and poachers know them intimately. They also understand that once they make it out of one state, like Arizona, they’re not likely to see that state’s laws enforced anywhere else. To bring states’ laws more into sync, the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity has started a campaign to clamp down on the rampant turtle trade. That could spark more consistent protections for all reptiles, according to the center’s herpetofauna attorney, Collette Adkins. “It’s slowly becoming a domino effect,” she says. “Many states are beginning to restrict the sale of native reptiles, and those states are now putting pressure on other states that don’t have the same -protections.”
International enforcement is even spottier. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that some 9 million herps (reptiles and amphibians) are exported annually from the United States. But only a small number of species are regulated by a global accord called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. They don’t include the twin-spotted rattlesnake.
Even in Arizona, state prosecutors rarely take up poaching cases. And when they do, judges are often blasé. “We try to educate the courts,” says Gabriel Paz, Game and Fish’s law enforcement program manager for southeastern Arizona. “But all of our cases in recent history were misdemeanors.” Misdemeanors don’t get much attention on crowded court dockets — a fact professional reptile thieves count on.
But this may be starting to change. In 2012, southern Arizona welcomed the nation’s first Animal Welfare Court, designed to adjudicate animal abuse and wildlife cases. While the court has yet to hear a poaching case, game officials hope to use it as a future tool. “We do what we can under the state statutes,” says Judge Maria Felix, who oversees the Pima County court. “But until the state Legislature finds a reason to change them, it’s not going to be taken seriously.”
However, there have been some victories, such as when a dealer was nabbed with one of Dave Prival’s twin-spotted rattlesnakes in 2006. On the dealer’s internet ad, the snake’s tell-tale research markings — each rattle segment is painted a different color — were still visible, proving conclusively that the reptile had been illegally taken in Arizona. It was, however, a bittersweet triumph: The South Carolina dealer faced a mere $525 fine. The snake was eventually returned to Arizona, where the Game and Fish Department used it as a public-education tool.
Prival believes that only tougher federal laws, such as one prohibiting the sale of any live wildlife — along with more money for enforcement and education — will significantly reduce the illegal reptile trade. In the meantime, he says, the occasional bust can have a ripple effect. “The collecting community is pretty tight-knit, and when you catch somebody, they hear about that sort of thing. So if you catch enough people that it becomes a hassle, collectors may say, ‘Well, Arizona is not a good place to go.’ I think that really is the hope.”
Tim Vanderpool is a Tucson-based journalist who writes about politics, environmental issues and the U.S.-Mexico border.