If you're hiking on a sunny Southern California day and you happen to come across a piece of wood or carpet, don't let your curiosity get the best of you — there's probably a snake under there, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation officials said Wednesday.
But the reason is more startling: Rangers have been investigating a reptile poaching operation in the hills above Thousand Oaks and Malibu, and this is one tactic they use to attract the animals.
Snakes will wriggle under the carpet or wooden planks for shade.
The accused poachers captured by surveillance cameras then sell the animals on a "reptile black market."
Chief Trouper Snow said on a recent operation, rangers confiscated 60 traps in the area of Decker Canyon.
Snow also said poachers face hefty penalties: six months in prison or up to $5,000 per snake.
Poachers sometimes peddle their captures to pet stores, Chatsworth "Exotic Life Fish and Reptiles" owner Rusty Paramonov said.
He said he only buys snakes bred in captivity, for a variety of reasons. Wild animals can carry devastating diseases or parasites, and will often die in captivity from the trauma alone.
"I tell them, 'This is a wild snake, so this snake belongs in the wild,'" Paramonov said.
A poached snake or other animal can cost four times less than his captive stock.
"These days, you know, we don't need to capture animals anymore. We really don't. There's plenty of captive breeding going on," Paramonov said.