For most of the 37 years that Captain Jeff Ardelean has worked as a state wildlife officer, he has been on the hunt for something that sounds like a work of fiction.
His prey for nearly four decades has been sea turtle poachers. They hit the beaches along Florida’s east coast, digging up new nests laid by leatherbacks, loggerheads and other endangered turtles. Some believe the eggs are an aphrodisiac, and they fetch enough money on the black market to make poachers a good living.
So every season, Ardelean and his team with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission comb the beaches, trudging the soft sand during sweltering summer nights. Often, they come away empty handed, unable to patrol hundreds of miles of beach with just a few officers.
But the recent sentencing of two men on poaching charges represents Ardelean’s crowning achievement, a goal he had been hoping to hit his entire career.
It began last year, when an informant revealed that sea turtle poachers were back at work raiding nests. Before that, Ardelean’s team believed that previous arrests and enforcement had convinced poachers it wasn’t worth the risk.
“We felt like we had a handle on it, and then we learned it was more rampant than we thought,” Ardelean said.
Previously, undercover officers had cracked down on poaching by buying eggs. The eggs are often sold on Riviera Beach streets by the same people selling drugs. But the poachers had taken to selling the eggs only to friends and family.
In response, Ardelean got a court order to install a tracking device on a vehicle being used by a suspected poacher. Police tracked it night after night, but often the tracking device went out of range, or the batteries died.
“It’s not like TV where everything works perfectly every time,” Ardelean said. “Sometimes technology just lets you down.”
Luckily, one of Ardelean’s officers in Fort Pierce spotted the car after the tracking device failed. The officer then crept up behind two men and hid in the darkness of a sand dune. From there, he watched as the men found fresh tracks from a sea turtle. They then followed it up the beach and began digging up a nest, pocketing 469 eggs. With a street value of $3 to $5, the men would have earned up to $2,300 for a night’s work. Instead, officers arrested the men as they tried to cross into Palm Beach County.
While Ardelean’s team had made arrests previously of poachers in possession of sea turtle eggs, this was the first time an officer had witnessed poachers digging up a nest. Because of that, federal prosecutors charged the men of more serious federal charges for molesting the nest of an endangered species.
A federal judge recently sentenced the two Riviera Beach men—60-year-old Carl Lawrence Cobb and 50-year-old Raymond Saunders—to seven months in prison. It’s one of the harshest sentences ever for sea turtle poaching, and Ardelean hopes it’s a wake-up call for other poachers.
“These guys had been bragging that they couldn’t be caught and they were on to us,” Ardelean said. “I told my team I wanted this guy a couple years ago, and they went after it.”
Someday soon, Ardelean is hoping technology can make his job easier. Florida law currently forbids state officers from using drones, but Ardelean hopes the rules will soon be updated. Using a drone would allow his team to track heat signatures on wide swaths of beach, hopefully stopping poachers before they’re able to raid nests.
For now though, Ardelean and his team will prepare for the upcoming sea turtle season—and relish, at least a little, in one of their biggest busts yet.
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