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Robot Animals Snare U.S. Poachers

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
May 1, 2009
 
On a remote U.S. Forest Service road in Arizona a few years ago, the driver of a white minivan slowly rolls to a stop, sticks a rifle out the window, and starts firing at what look to be wild turkeys.

State officers hiding in nearby bushes emerge, running toward the vehicle and shouting: "Game and Fish Department! Cease fire! Put down your weapon!"

The driver speeds off, but is caught a short distance down the dirt road by another officer. The hunter is cited for discharging a weapon from a vehicle—a U.S. $500 fine.

Unbeknownst to the driver, the turkey is actually a robotic decoy designed to catch such outdoor outlaws. Other robots include swimming moose, white-tailed deer and black bear.

Conservationists estimate that, for every animal killed legally in a hunting season, one animal is lost to poaching.

But year-round sting operations—like the one conducted near Young, Arizona, and in nearly every other U.S. state—are helping to level the playing field by saving wildlife from being illegally killed or captured for the pet trade.

"I consider it like a bait car that police departments use to apprehend people who are stealing vehicles," explains Arizona Game and Fish Department officer Ken Dinquel.

For nearly 20 years, the Oregon State Police Department's Fish and Wildlife Division has run a decoy operation targeting violators who hunt off-season from their cars and roadways or at night with the aid of a spotlight.

Under state law, firing at a wildlife enforcement decoy is considered the same as firing at a live animal. All the same penalties apply.

"The people that shoot at decoys are wildlife thieves," said Lt. Steve Lane. "They're not hunters."

Robot Animals

These animals look and act just like the real things.

Molded-fiberglass animals are wrapped in genuine hides obtained by government officers through donations or illegal kills.

(Related: "Robot Fish to Detect Ocean Pollution.")

Inside the bodies are radio-controlled motors—the same type found in toy cars or planes—allowing wildlife officers to remotely move a decoy's head, ears, and tail. Special reflective eyes glow at night when light is shined on them.

The robots don't come cheap: Prices range from $500 for turkey to $5,500 for a grizzly bear.

But Bob Koons, executive director of the Humane Society of the United States's Wildlife Land Trust, feels the price is well worth it.

That's because decoys put law enforcement officers and poachers in the same spot at the same time, leading to more convictions.

Koons, whose trust donates the high-tech decoys to law enforcement agencies nationwide, said the program has "been extremely successful."

Illegal Immigrants

In Arizona, wildlife officers are stepping up efforts against the rising number of illegal immigrants hunting at night for meat to feed their families, and, in some cases, entire neighborhoods.

(Related: "African Refugees Spurring Bush-Meat Trade.")

Dinquel, a 20-year veteran with the game-and-fish department, said poaching cases—which include illegal collection of protected species of reptiles for the pet trade—are a huge problem statewide.

The department runs about 12 decoy operations annually, he said, nabbing violators about 80 percent of the time. But not everyone who is caught knows they've done something wrong.

"Oftentimes there's just some disconnect with people on the wildlife laws," Dinquel said.

"They know that buying drugs on the streets of Phoenix is illegal, but they don't view shooting a deer as that big of a deal."
 

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