Investigators are trying to track down who cut off the paws of a 135-pound cougar found dead Wednesday morning near a California freeway.
Andrew Hughan, public information officer for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the case is being investigated as poaching. It is illegal to take body parts, he said, even if — as it appears — the animal was first killed by a car. "It’s still desecrating a specially protected species," he said.
Animal Rescue Team, the organization that helped find the mountain lion, said that the animal's genitals had also been removed. Fish and Game initially confirmed that information. They later said it was erroneous.
The mountain lion was a 2- to 3-year-old male — a teenager, in human terms, according to Hughan — when it died along a rural stretch of Highway 101, a major commuting route for Los Angeles.
Here’s what they know: At about 5 a.m. the California Highway Patrol received a call from a motorist who spotted a deer in a southbound lane of the highway, a few miles from the small town of Buellton, population 2,500.
When the game warden was nearing the scene, he came upon an elderly couple — tourists from Oklahoma, who had pulled off the highway in their car to capture a fawn that was wandering next to the freeway, Hughan said. He took the fawn, which was unhurt, and went to get the mountain lion.
But he couldn't find the cat. It was only several hours later with the help of a wildlife rescue worker that they found the mountain lion carcass, now mutilated and discarded, well off the road.
The working theory, according to Hughan, is that the doe spotted the cougar and was trying to draw the predator away from her fawn when the cougar ran into traffic and was hit.
And then the poacher — possibly someone listening to the police scanner, he speculated — rushed to the scene with tools to salvage body parts.
Two male mountain lions were found mutilated last fall, according to Tim Dunbar, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, a nonprofit in California. One had been shot, the other killed by a car, and both had paws and genitals removed.
A fawn rescued when investigators were looking for a dead mountain lion that had been reported along Highway 101 north of Los Angeles. The cougar may have been chasing the fawn's mother. It is now being cared for by Animal Rescue Team, a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation organization.
The paws were probably taken to be stuffed and sold into the lucrative black market as trophies, said Stephanie Boyles Griffin, a wildlife biologist with the Humane Society of the United States.
She said poachers take mountain lion genitals to sell as ingredients for traditional medicines. Claws from the animal sometimes end up in jewelry.
"One reason it’s illegal even to take the parts of an animal that was already killed is because there’s no way to know if they were taken from an animal that was killed accidentally or intentionally by a poacher," said Boyles Griffin.
Mountain lions have been "specially protected" under California state law since 1990 and it is illegal to possess their body parts. The main species in California is not considered endangered, though it is rare. It is legally hunted in some states.
For now, information on the crime is scant.
"We’ve got a dead lion, no idea where the doe is, but the fawn is fine," said Hughan.
He’s hoping that a $2,000 reward will turn up some new information in the case.
"There’s really no hope of catching these guys unless somebody rats 'em out," said Hughan. "Money talks and hopefully the reward will go up and somebody will rat them out."
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