By Bo Petersen
Five large alligators have been found dead with their heads and tails cut off, in what one wildlife officer called one of the biggest poaching incidents of the species the state has seen in recent years.
The alligators were found Saturday floating belly up and bloated in the Ashley River between Middleton and Magnolia plantations. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources is investigating.
“We were shocked to see so many bodies and in such close proximity,” said paddler Andy Stroer.
“Butchered and mainly just left to rot. Just floating carcasses, heads missing, tails missing,” said Will Smith, a guide for Charleston Kayak Co., who was on a tour when they came upon them caught up in overhanging trees and on pier pilings or swarmed by vultures on the mud bank at low tide. “It was real eerie seeing them out there.”
DNR Capt. Gentry Thames called the slaughter “one of the biggest poaching operations we’ve seen in a while,” and said it was unusual for where it occurred. Poaching usually is discovered in relatively isolated stretches of river or lakes. This one evidently occurred on the developed North Charleston stretch where the carcasses were discovered.
“We haven’t had a major issue” with poaching since issuing permits for the removal of nuisance alligators a number of years ago, and then introducing a limited hunting season in 2011, Thames said.
Alligator skulls, jaws and meat from the tails have a marketable value, and a black market for them has long existed, said Ron Russell of Gator Getter Consultants. Once removed from the tail, the meat virtually is untraceable. Because every harvested alligator has to be licensed and numbered, illegally taken skulls or teeth can be traced, he said.
Since the airing of alligator-hunter television shows and social media postings, poaching generally has become more common, Russell said.
More than 100,000 alligators are estimated to live in the state, but hard numbers are difficult to come by. Some critics say the state hunt in the fall of each year is depleting the breed stock of larger alligators. More than 2,000 alligators legally are killed each year among the hunt, nuisance and private land removals.
Smith estimated the Ashley River gator sizes from about 4 feet to 8 or 10 feet, judging from the carcasses without head or tail.
“It’s just the saddest thing to see,” he said.