By Brendan Gibbons
Researchers aren’t the only people searching for bog turtles.
Poachers are also on the prowl.
Each turtle can fetch up to $5,000 on the illegal reptile market. Ounce for ounce, that makes bog turtles more valuable than elephant ivory.
“It’s a very interesting subculture,” said Capt. Tom Burrell, head of the Fish and Boat Commission’s special investigations unit. “There are some people that are just very into turtles and reptiles. Others are into it because they’re illegal.”
Listing rare species as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act can also drive up demand, Capt. Burrell said.
To bust poachers and illegal collectors, the commission relies on tips from the public, Capt. Burrell said. Conservation officers also set up undercover operations, infiltrating poaching rings and setting up controlled buys, Capt. Burrell said. The commission has 32 cases in some stage of investigation or prosecution, he said.
Lately, poachers in Pennsylvania have been more interested in rare or venomous snakes, but the bog turtle’s small size and rarity could make it desirable, he said. Often, federal officers get involved when species are trafficked across state lines or out of the country, where poachers can sell them for higher prices.
“When you think of poaching in the U.S., you think of someone who lives in a trailer, drinks Bud and has a mullet,” Mr. Ruhe said. “But these can be sophisticated criminals.”
Pennsylvania draws reptile enthusiasts because, unlike most states, it only regulates native reptiles and amphibians, Capt. Burrell said. Often, people who start out collecting nonnatives cross over into natives, he said.
Collectors often know they’re breaking the law but feel like the law is unjust, he said.
“You just wonder what’s the point of having something you can’t take out and touch,” he said. “Either you can’t show someone because it’s illegal, or it’s so dangerous you can’t take it out of a locked container.”
Fearing poachers, biologists who work with the bog turtle, as with other endangered animals, must keep their habitats top secret to protect the few isolated places they can still survive.
The need for secrecy is so extreme that a Sunday Times reporter had to sign an agreement not to specifically identify the site in order to join these herpetologists (people who study reptiles and amphibians) on a bog turtle survey on private property.