Firefighters in Missouri made a grisly discovery as they were trying to beat back a wildfire Thursday.
After a patch of tall grass had burned off, the Hayti Fire Department found a heap of dead turtles near a public park in the far southeastern reaches of the state. Some 163 carcasses in were in the pile, including 161 red-eared sliders and two snapping turtles, the Missouri Department of Conservation said.
It was a case of illegal poaching, according to Missouri Conservation Agent Brian Shelton. But the pile of dead turtles left many unanswered questions, Shelton said: Who had killed the turtles? And why?
“This dump site is, without a doubt, the most egregious turtle poaching incident that I have seen in my career,” Shelton said in a statement. “I’m appalled that anyone would have this kind of disregard for our wildlife here in the Bootheel.”
Now Shelton and the Department of Conservation are looking for help from the public in solving the wildlife mystery. The turtles were discovered near the state's border with Tennessee and Arkansas.
While Shelton did say there is regulated hunting allowed for some turtles species in Missouri, he called the discovery of 163 poached turtles a case of “wanton waste.”
“It is illegal to intentionally leave or abandon any portion of any wildlife that is commonly used as human food,” Shelton said. “The amount of wasted wildlife here is shocking and I look forward to learning more about this case.”
Red-eared sliders are common in Missouri, according to the Department of Conservation. Sliders usually have a red or orange stripe on each side of their heads, right behind their eyes. The animals are called “sliders” because of how quickly they can slip into the water after basking in the sun.
Snapping turtles, meanwhile, are large aquatic turtles — unlike the semi-aquatic sliders. Snapping turtles have large pointed heads and thick, long tails.
Both species are vital parts of their ecosystems, conservation officials said.
It’s unclear how the turtles were killed, Shelton told the Springfield News-Leader.
"There were no bullet holes in them, but it's just my speculation that somebody illegally trapped them and dumped them here," Shelton told the newspaper, adding that the turtles were discovered near a walking path and some tennis courts.
Information about the incident can be shared anonymously through the Operation Game Thief Hotline at 1-800-392-1111.
Shelton can be reached directly at 573-757-8357. An award of $1,000 is possible in return for information that leads to an arrest, according to the Department of Conservation.