Customs officials at Thiruvananthapuram airport checked a baggage for "what they thought to be mangoes", but turned out to be drugged Star tortoise hatchlings

Had it not been for a few alert Customs enforcers, many of the Indian star tortoise hatchlings seized at the international airport here on Monday would have been “long dead” by the time they reached Bangkok, the “port of delivery” of the rare wildlife species covered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Early Monday, the staff manning a private airline’s X-ray baggage scanner at the airport here found the check-in luggage of Abdul Harish, a passenger, crammed with “what they thought to be mangoes”. He was one among the scores of travellers who had queued up to board the dawn flight to Colombo from where he would fly to Bangkok.

Customs “spotters” observing international passengers for non-verbal clues that would, arguably, indicate concealment of contraband on their person or baggage, perceived the passenger to be “extremely edgy”. They detained him. His luggage was “anything but mangoes”. The enforcers said they found 460 tortoise hatchlings, all drugged and immobilised after being dipped in a sleeping pill solution. The creatures were haphazardly stacked and so tightly bound that only their carapaces showed. Within hours of their release, all the hatchlings were moving around slothfully.

The Customs said the accused, a resident of Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu, was just a “minor link” in the chain of poachers, middlemen, sellers and collectors who profited from the widespread illegal trade in wildlife in South East Asia.

(The Customs later learned that the Immigration Department had, for classified reasons, listed the passport number of the suspect under the head of “sensitive” travellers).

Enforcers said the price for a star tortoise hatchling in the black market was “purely speculative”. Foreign collectors were known to pay up to Rs.10,000 for a pair, they said.

‘Perfect pet’

They said the “smuggler” was aware that many tortoises would be dead before they reached Bangkok. But he would still make a profit despite the “attrition rate,” they said.

Illegal traders often marketed star tortoise, valued for its carapace with its radiating patterns, as the “perfect pet”. It could easily survive on a diet of fallen flowers and grass and required little tending. Investigators said the seizure of such a large number of baby tortoises pointed to the existence of illegal hatcheries, possibly in remote Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh. Efforts were on to identify the source of the hatchlings.