UPDATE: The reward has now been increased to $20,000.
Hundreds of the endangered salamanders vanished from San Marcos over the holidays in 2016. If you can help solve the mystery you could be rewarded with up to $15,000.
For more than 15 years some endangered salamanders have called the San Marcos Aquatic Resources Center their home, but Thanksgiving Night 363 of them mysteriously vanished without a trace. Ken Ostrand is the Center Director, “We haven't had an incident here like this ever, that's why it's so shocking. The majority of individuals that were taken were Texas Blind and then we had some San Marcos Salamanders that went missing,” he said.
Ostrand said they have staff checking on the animals every day. The center houses endangered species of all kinds and losing hundreds of the threatened salamanders is a big loss. “We try to keep about 500 in stock, and that's so that we can manage the genetics so that we have a very diverse group of animals in case they actually do go extinct in the wild.”
The facility sits on 115 acres, and there are security cameras, but because the area is so large and it gets really dark, those cameras don’t pick up every angle. The salamanders were being housed in a locked building and there were no signs of forced entry.
Whether it was mystery animal feast, or a human heist, Ostrand said law enforcement is investigating every possibility. “We didn’t observe anything you'd associate you know say a raccoon breaking into an area there wasn't any disturbance like that. You start to think ‘Was this deliberate? Was this something done by a person?’” Ostrand said.
But why would someone want hundreds of salamanders? Many rare and endangered species can be lucrative in a black market. “People always want something interesting, and these are very interesting and unique animals and you can keep them in an aquarium,” Ostrand said,
Last year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service banned the interstate and international trade of more than 200 salamander species to protect salamanders in the U.S. from a fungus killing the species overseas, making the rare animal in even more high demand.
But for those at the San Marcos Aquatic Center, the value of the animal possibly facing extinction is priceless. ”We are all in this for conservation, people here are dedicated, everyone here has big hearts for these animals and wants to make sure they exist for the future,” Ostrand said.
Ostrand said they have about 20 of the Texas Blind salamanders left, and are on the road to replenishing. The Aquatic Resources Center staff said they've already caught two from the wild this year.
A conviction for stealing the endangered salamanders could result in fines up to $100,000 and up to one year in prison. Anyone with information should contact the Fish and Wildlife Service's San Antonio Office of Law Enforcement.