WRAL Investigates

Expert: Reptile poaching is lucrative business

Posted May 3, 2011 6:00 p.m. EDT
Updated May 3, 2011 7:41 p.m. EDT

— A Raleigh man is the subject of a federal investigation after police say he tried to smuggle a box full of endangered, protected turtles from a North Carolina wildlife refuge.

Search warrants allege that Gregory DeCurtis was collecting protected turtle species at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Dare County for sale on the black market.

Alvin Braswell, assistant director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, which is often asked to assist in identifying species for wildlife poaching investigations, says reptile trading has become a lucrative business.

“Something that’s very rare, and if it’s pretty, can be of great value,” Braswell said.

The spotted turtle, for example, is one of the most sought-after species for collectors and legal breeders, but it also fetches upwards of $100 on the Internet black market. Bog turtles go for more than $2,000 apiece.

“If you’re in the commercial trade and trying to collect wild, it only makes sense for you to go to where you can get the most animals in the shortest amount of time to maximize your profits,” Braswell said.

That’s why poachers looking for a quick buck often spend time at wildlife refuges during the spring months. As the weather warms, reptiles and turtles start coming out in full force, Braswell said.

He added that reptile trading is not only illegal, it’s potentially damaging to the environment.

“The type that I’m most concerned about are those that are targeting rare and dangerous species that are in trouble and intentionally collecting those to make a buck off it,” Braswell said.

WRAL Investigates was unable to reach DeCurtis, but learned that he has not yet been charged with any federal crime. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is waiting on the results of a forensic analysis of DeCurtis’ cell phone before proceeding.

The wildlife refuge officer at Alligator River who stopped DeCurtis said he was in wet pajamas and told the officer he wasn’t stealing the animals, but was only helping them cross the road, warrants state.

The officer eventually seized his cell phone, which had photos of other protected reptiles, and a journal that documented past and future poaching trips, warrants state.

DeCurtis was cited last year for possession of a pygmy rattlesnake, another protected species native to North Carolina.