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The state’s endangered bog turtles increasingly at risk of poaching

Because of threats from habitat loss and poachers, officials say there are only about 65 adult bog turtles in the state.
Because of threats from habitat loss and poachers, officials say there are only about 65 adult bog turtles in the state.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

AN UNDISCLOSED LOCATION IN THE BERKSHIRES — Sloshing into a valley of ankle-deep mud, poisonous shrubs, and a thicket of other greenery, Mike Jones lugged a backpack full of radio-tracking equipment, waiting for a spike in digital squawks.

“Female 94 is pretty close,” a colleague advised through the bushes, as she listened for signals from a transmitter.

When Jones, the state herpetologist, reached a boggy mound of moss, he spotted a narrow tunnel in the spongy ground and crouched in the bramble. With sharp branches scratching his forehead, he reached deep into the sodden hole and pulled out one of the rarest creatures in New England, one that has inhabited the region for thousands of years.

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It was a bog turtle, a squat reptile the size of a cellphone — one of only about 65 adults known to remain in Massachusetts.

Given their dwindling population — the turtles are listed by the state as an endangered species — Jones and a small group of scientists closely monitor the native species, known for the orange blotches on their leathery necks and the distinct pattern of rings on their shells.

The tiny turtles require particular boggy conditions that are vulnerable to drought and flooding, a habitat that is also threatened by increasing development and climate change. But their biggest threat is from poachers: The bog turtle is a highly prized exotic pet that collectors pay thousands of dollars for on a thriving black market.

Poaching has become such a significant problem for bog turtles and similarly sized reptiles that the location of their Massachusetts habitat is considered top secret, so much that a Globe reporter and photographer were required to sign a nondisclosure agreement before being taken to this valley in the Taconic Mountains.

“It’s really discouraging,” Jones said. “You could dedicate your career to protecting the species, and it can be undermined in a few days.”

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Poaching rare turtles is a multimillion-dollar industry, with thieves combing the wilds of North America for bog, box, wood, and spotted turtles, and then shipping them to buyers, mainly in Asia and Europe. The rarer the turtle, the more they fetch on the black market, which takes place online and even in pet shops.

The more common box turtles, for example, are sold on the black market for between $200 and $5,000, depending on their markings, said Dave Collins, director of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Saving Animals From Extinction program. Given how few bog turtles remain — the exact number is unknown — they likely sell for more, as much as tens of thousands of dollars, he said.

“The trade for these turtles is enormous,” Collins said.

Rare turtles represent the fourth largest source of wildlife sold on the black market, he said. While once sought as a delicacy or as a source for medicines, they’re now mainly bought as unusual pets.

Just this month, a 27-year-old man in Worcester was sentenced in federal court for multiple counts of smuggling wildlife into and out of the United States, including black-breasted leaf turtles.

It’s unclear how big of a black market exists for endangered species in Massachusetts, but authorities said they are well aware of the problem.

“The poaching of endangered species is a critical focus for the Massachusetts Environmental Police,” said Craig Gilvarg, a spokesman for the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

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Last year, a 71-year-old man in New York was charged with illegally selling wildlife after authorities seized 17 bog turtles as well as other rare reptiles, including several hundred spotted, wood, and Blanding’s turtles, from his home. They also confiscated 20 boxes of turtle eggs.

Such poaching can be devastating to a species that mainly lives in colonies scattered from northern Maryland to the Berkshires. The loss of one breeding female could spell the collapse of a colony, given the challenges bog turtles have in producing babies. Very few of their eggs hatch, and those that do rarely survive, as predators swoop in.

Mike Knoerr, a biologist who studies bog turtles at Virginia Tech’s Conservation Management Institute, said he knows of several colonies in North Carolina that are now functionally extinct as a result of poaching.

“One or two turtles being poached from a population annually is enough to drive localized extinction,” he said.

Poachers have been known to remove up to half of a colony in one afternoon, which he called a “devastating blow that they are not evolutionarily designed to tolerate.”

“Once you dip below a certain number of turtles at a site, the population will not recover,” Knoerr said.

Specialists in trafficking of such endangered species said the poaching of bog turtles is likely more widespread than known, and they urged authorities to do more to protect them.

Crawford Allan, an expert on wildlife trafficking at the World Wildlife Fund, said law enforcement needs to work with conservationists to protect the turtles.

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“Any poaching of a critically endangered species — and in this case, one of the US’s most rare turtles — is a disaster for a species that cannot afford to lose a single animal,” he said.

With poaching unlikely to decline anytime soon — not even a global pandemic appears to be diminishing the illicit trade — conservationists in Massachusetts are doing what they can to protect the state’s remaining turtles.

On a recent morning at the secret habitat in the Berkshires, Jones worked with an environmental advocacy group to check on the turtles, ensuring the radio transmitters attached to their shells to track them remained secure.

They also took steps to make the turtles less attractive to poachers.

When Angela Sirois-Pitel, a stewardship manager for The Nature Conservancy, pulled a 9-year-old female from the muck, she used a special file to carve five notches into its exquisitely patterned shell. The noticeable abrasions make them less marketable and easier for the scientists to identify.

While the loss of such small, mud-dwelling turtles might seem minor in the larger scheme of things, they play a vital role in the ecosystem, spreading seeds and irrigating the land, specialists said.

“They have lived here thousands of years — far longer than we have,” Sirois-Pitel said. “They have a right to be here, and we have encroached on them. We should be doing everything we can to protect them.”

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David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.