By Peter Haden
After monsoon rain, poachers are known to prowl desert roads looking for Gila monsters warming themselves on the asphalt. That’s where Ranger comes in.
State law-enforcement officers release Ranger, a Gila monster fitted with an identifying microchip, and keep watch nearby.
“If someone pulls over and picks it up and takes it, that’s reasonable suspicion to make a stop and issue a citation,” said Tyler VanVleet, law-enforcement coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s regional office in Mesa.
A Gila monster, one of only two venomous lizards in the world, can fetch up to $1,500 on the black market, according to experts.
Along with four other venomous reptile species protected in Arizona — the twin-spotted, massasauga, banded-rock and ridge-nosed rattlesnakes — Gila monsters make Arizona a draw for reptile poachers.
“They’ve come from Australia, Germany, other European countries, and from all over the U.S. to collect animals that can only be found in Arizona,” VanVleet said.
He said poachers often time their trips with the monsoon.
“All of that water hitting the ground gets the animals moving,” VanVleet said. “People will come to Arizona and start driving the roads at night, spotting reptiles with their headlights or flashlights.”
They come to Arizona because of the diversity of reptiles indigenous to the state, including 13 different species of rattlesnake, according to Nate Deason, venomous-serpent curator at the Phoenix Herpetological Society.
“For reptile lovers, it’s Shangri-La,” he said.
Experts know there is plenty of illegal collecting going on, but assessing the magnitude and damage to species is tricky, according to Dave Prival, co-founder of Southwestern Ecological Research Co. in Tucson.
He has been monitoring a population of twin-spotted rattlesnakes in southern Arizona for more than 15 years. More....