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2 Dozen Arrested in Snake Poaching Sting : Crime: Fish and Game officials raid 11 counties, charging 13 people in Southern California. Illegal sales in the state reach $100 million a year, officials say.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly two dozen people, including 13 in Southern California, were arrested Tuesday on charges of snake poaching, the result of a sting operation by state game wardens investigating the state’s $100-million annual black market in live wildlife, authorities said.

The operation, which was called Operation Ranching for Reptiles and culminated in raids in 11 California counties, had been aimed at the illegal sale of fish and wildlife native to the state.

Capt. Jerry Spansail, spokesman for the Department of Fish and Game, said more than 2,000 illegally obtained reptiles were confiscated in the sweep, including about 800 poached snakes seized from a single breeder in Visalia.

“Poaching of native wildlife is a runaway cottage industry in California that threatens our wildlife resources,” said Lt. Eddie Watkins, who runs the department’s special operations unit.

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“In this operation, we targeted some of the major players who’ve made a commercial enterprise out of catching, breeding and selling thousands of reptiles to collectors throughout the country.”

Department of Fish and Game officials have long been concerned about the underground traffic in wildlife and reptiles in particular. One reptile dealer is believed to have made $60,000 a year sacking snakes and selling them to collectors on the black market.

As snake collecting has become more popular as a hobby, demand for rare and unusual-looking reptiles such as the San Diego mountain king snake has soared, authorities say. Fish and Game Director Boyd Gibbons said black market reptile dealers can make up to $2,000 a night just by trawling back roads for snakes.

The Legislature created the Department of Fish and Game’s special operations unit in the mid-1980s to address the problem. State law allows collectors with fishing licenses to capture two snakes of a given species, but it is a misdemeanor to buy or sell native species of reptiles.

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“Poachers are hammering California wildlife,” Gibbons said. “They’re taking enormous numbers of deer, bear, abalone, lobsters, crabs, birds and snakes. No species escapes the poachers. They don’t care about the animals they kill--they’re only driven by money.”

Tuesday’s sting was the result of a two-year investigation conducted from a storefront in Temecula, authorities said. The phony business, named Temecula Reptilia, attracted reptile poachers and collectors seeking to do business on the black market.

The operation, which focused on Southern California, netted 13 suspects in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Most of the animals seized were rosy boas, a species of snake that sells on the black market for up to $250.

Also seized were a dozen California rattlesnakes, a venomous Gila monster, a piranha, an opossum, snapping turtles and prohibited, non-native fish, including a longnose gar and a snakeshead, officials said.

The animals were trucked to a Department of Fish and Game base in Chino, where they are being held.


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