Wednesday, August 10, 2011

South Florida Wildlife Officers Capture Poachers via Facebook

Earlier in one of my posts, I had written about a group of New Zealand teenagers who were caught via Facebook after posting photos of them posing with a leopard seal they had killed. But now, there is a similar story in the U.S where wildlife officers are using the social networking site to capture poachers in South Florida. In order to capture them, officers go undercover by creating fake accounts to befriend the perpetrators. Though most often they access to their photos through their friends' accounts, who tip them off. In addition to photos, investigators also use comments and videos of poachers as evidence to indict them. The Florida Wildlife and Conservation Commission (FWC) established its very own internet crimes unit in late 2009, due to numerous cyber-related calls. In 2010, the unit made 177 arrests and gave 92 warnings.
Brian Spuler; one of several people arrested via Facebook

The commission's most recent capture occurred this June. 18-year-old Brian Spuler of Port St. Lucie was arrested after posting a photo of himself with a snook that appeared to have been killed with a spear gun. He was charged with taking the fish out of season, and with an illegal method. But, he pleaded no contest in taking the fish out of season and the charge of using an illegal method was dropped. However, he was fined $350 and sentenced to six months probation. According to Spuler himself, he did not know that it was illegal to fish at that time and that officers had violated his privacy. Similar feelings towards the commission's strategy were shown from other people. One of them was Tom Twyford, president of the West Palm Beach Fishing Club, who hopes that officers will go easy on people who do not know the law. However, Ken Sorensen, president of Boynton Beach Fishing Club, applauded the agency's efforts. In his own words, he had seen people upload photos of undersized fish and believes that the arrests will prevent others from doing the same. According to Jon Garzaniti of the internet crimes unit, the officers sometimes give warnings depending on how serious the crime is and whether the perpetrator realized it was illegal.
Darin Lee Waldo with his two poached white-tailed deer in Florida's Polk County

In addition to Facebook, the members of the unit also investigate black market wildlife sales on sites like Craigslist. One example took place on July 11th, when a 26-year-old man in Fort Lauderdale intentionally tried to sell a marmoset from South America online without a permit for $2,700. He was arrested and charged with illegal possession, sale, and caging of the monkey. But perhaps the most notorious poaching case occurred in April 2010 involving a man named Tom Doyle of Martin County. The 49-year-old supposedly boasted on Facebook about shooting an alligator in his backyard. The arrest report indicated that someone had turned him in after seeing his photos. The photos on his profile showed his son on a nine or ten-foot-long alligator. In his comments, Doyle said that he had shot the reptile in the eye. When questioned by the authorities, Doyle said that he killed the alligator with a bang stick because it was threatening his goats. But when one of the officers pointed to his comment, he replied that he was only bragging. He then also showed the officers alligator meat packed in plastic bags at the bottom of his freezer. He was arrested for illegal possession of alligator, and was fined $480. After Tom Doyle, another complaint was made on June 17th leading to the arrest of 21-year-old Kyle Edwards of Tampa. He admitted to killing a deer and an alligator with his AK-47. He also admitted posting his photos on Facebook, and officers later found the carcasses of the two animals. He was cited for illegal possession of alligator and hunting deer in closed season.
Tara Anne Carver with her fresh kill

I'm very much enthralled to see how some wildlife officials are turning to Facebook to capture the perpetrators responsible for allegedly poaching different species of animals. Many thought that they would be safe, but this concept is contradicted by Mr. Garzaniti. He stated that widespread visibility of social media has made it harder for them. He further added that many of these people do not realize they have friends online who either are motivated by the amount of reward imposed on them or simply because they do not like them. This, in turn, leads to violators arrested and fined for their gruesome deeds. When those teenagers were arrested for killing an leopard seal in New Zealand, I think it is possible they had friends who turned them in to the authorities. But what pleases me the most is how some people are collaborating with the law enforcement, and providing them with proper evidence in indicting the perpetrators. In addition to that, it is also very unique to see wildlife officials going undercover on Facebook to capture the poachers.

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