Highly sought after in the international market as a pet item, Indian star tortoises are being increasingly smuggled out of the country

The information of a camouflaged consignment that was being transported stealthily from Chennai to Trichy airport intrigued the police, who covertly chased the “runaway” consignment without knowing what it contained. On arrival at the Trichy check-in counter, Customs officials also joined the police team and tried to trace the shipment. While the six similar-looking cloth bags passed through the x-ray scanner, the inspection team noticed something suspicious. Strange star marks appeared on the screen and next 295 Indian star-shelled tortoises were recovered from the bags. The Trichy Customs immediately confiscated the baggage and on closer inspection saw that all the tortoises were neatly packed in six thick pillow covers. In a clever move on part of the smugglers, puffed rice was used both as a cushion and concealment material that also doubled as food for the tiny animals on transit.

The man behind the smuggling sortie was identified as Mohammad Rafiyudin, who trades illegally in wildlife. Though initially planned to board a flight from Chennai airport, Rafiyudin later changed plans and chose Trichy airport perceiving lax security checks there. He had booked the first early morning flight to Colombo. He was, however, caught red-handed, on June 29 while checking into Trichy airport, as he failed to hoodwink the security personnel. He was booked under the Wildlife Act.

“Dead or alive, Indian star tortoises command premium prices in international market. The beautiful coloration with attractive patterns on its hard shell, small size, non-aquatic habit, easy to feed and their docile nature makes star tortoises a sought after pet. Its high sale value that makes huge profits in South-East Asian markets also makes it a top-traded species,” explains Abrar Ahmed, a consultant with TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

Tortoises are apparently harmless creature but are very much capable of biting when provoked. They are sluggish yet clever animals. Known to be the longest living animal on land, tortoises have a life span between 70 and 150 years. In case of star tortoises, it can range between 40 to 80 years; adult females are larger in size and live longer. Males are comparatively smaller, have longer tails and concave underbelly shell to facilitate mounting and breeding.

Most of us are ignorant and confused while differentiating tortoises and turtles, says B.C. Choudhury, a wildlife consultant based in Dehra Dun. He explains that tortoises are fundamentally land creatures, rarely venturing in water. They don a hard, high-domed shell with sturdy legs, a snub-nosed head and are vegetarian. Turtles, on the other hand, are aquatic and omnivorous. Instead of legs, they have flippers for swimming and come to land only to lay eggs. When threatened, both tortoises and turtles have a unique feature of retracting their long head and all four legs into the safety of their strong shell. Above all, tortoises keep the forest floor tidy by eating weeds and reed beds.

M.K.S. Pasha, associate director at TRAFFIC India, Delhi, points out: “Over the years, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, Pune and Kandla have emerged as trade points for smuggling the Indian star tortoise. So far, three international trade conduits — Bangalore-Kolkata-Hong Kong, Bombay and Kutch-Kandla to the Middle East — have been identified. Data compiled during 2000-2010 showed a total of 42 seizures accounting for more than 26,000 units of tortoises.”

The media often reports about poaching of big mammals like tigers, leopards and lions but the organized smuggling networks for smaller animals like tortoises are ignored more than often. Indian star tortoises are in great demand in the international pet trade and also for turtle soup delicacy.

Meanwhile, Indian wildlife authorities continue waging a difficult but dedicated battle against tortoise smuggling. They retrieved 600 smuggled star tortoises from Malaysia last year. With painstaking effort, the scientists in Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species (LaCONES) in Hyderabad succeeded in establishing the origin of the stolen tortoises by DNA sequencing. Once the geographical locations were established, the tortoises were set free into their jungle habitat with the help of forest and wildlife representatives.