By Andy Pierrotti
The KVUE Defenders team uncovered a growing online industry impacting Texas’ native species and little incentive for criminals to stop.
"I don't know if they're full grown or not," says a Dallas area man in hidden camera video recorded by wildlife investigators. He’s talking about a Texas tortoise he’s about to illegally sell to undercover wardens.
The reptile is protected by the state and illegal to sell without permits.
The 2012 case sting was part of a statewide bust to capture Texans illegally selling wildlife on the black market.
According to information provided by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, illegal wildlife cases increased from 160 cases in 2010 to 200 last year.
"I think we're at the tip of the iceberg," said Greg Williford, a TPWD investigator.
Most of the violations involved buying and selling without proper permits, something Austin pet store manager Misia Shumway must have to sell any animal.
"So, everyone holding those permits is following those rules, therefore not affecting the ecosystem, not affecting live animal populations," said Shumway, manager of All Around Austin Exotic Pets.
Shumway said the Texas tortoise is a good example of illegal sales severely depleting the reptile’s numbers in the state.
"When I was a kid, there were box turtles everywhere. We'd go out in my grandmother's yard and pick them up. You rarely see them roaming anymore," Shumway said.
Williford said most sales happen online. For example, the KVUE Defenders found multiple wild animals for sale on Craigslist around central Texas this past week, from $150 tortoises to $300 boa constrictors.
The fines for illegally selling animals in Texas range from $25 to about $500 dollars. TPW said criminals know the penalties are low and consider it just the cost of doing business.
"I'd say there is very little deterrent to do this, whether legally or illegally," said Williford.
Go here for the first part of this Defenders investigation. Video.