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Bid for greater protection of star tortoise, a trafficking mainstay

  • The illegal trafficking of the Indian star tortoise, an IUCN-listed vulnerable species, is thriving despite its trade being restricted under CITES Appendix II and domestic legislation in all three range states.
  • To fight this, range states Sri Lanka and India, along with other countries, have submitted a proposal for the upcoming CITES summit to move the star tortoise from Appendix II to Appendix I.
  • The CITES Secretariat has recommended rejecting the proposal, saying that adding the star tortoise to Appendix I provides no clear benefit for its protection, but proponents say the alarming scale of the trade should be reason enough, and hope to convince the CITES parties of the value of uplisting the tortoise.

In March 2019, custom officials open abandoned luggage in the halls of Manila’s international airport. In June, law enforcement agents stop a car to check four trolley bags that passengers had loaded in a rush at a railway station in Kolkata, India. In July, officers arrest a passenger at a railway station in India’s Andhra Pradesh state and inspect his suitcase.

In each incident, officials find the same thing: live turtles crawling over and underneath each other, crammed into plastic bags or buckets, hidden between clothes or wrapped in duct tape. Most are no bigger than 10 centimetres (4 inches) in length. Most are Indian star tortoises (Geochelone elegans), the most confiscated species of freshwater tortoise in the world, according to the wildlife trade watchdog TRAFFIC.

That could change after this month, at the Conference of the Parties to CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, where a proposal to restrict the trade in the species significantly will be discussed.

Proposal for protection

Indian star tortoises  live in grasslands, scrub forests and coastal scrublands. They’re only found in Sri Lanka, southern and eastern India, and a region in northwestern India and adjoining Pakistan.

Since 1975, the species has been protected under CITES Appendix II, meaning that its trade requires registration and special permits. Appendix II allows for regulated trade of captive-bred specimens.

The star tortoise is classified as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Illegal collection for the international wildlife trade is by far the biggest threat, followed by increasing habitat loss for farmland. These factors, in combination with long reproductive cycles, make it almost certain that populations in the wild are shrinking.

Sri Lanka, which was meant to host the CITES CoP until the event was rescheduled in the wake of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks, has joined India, Bangladesh and Senegal in proposing to move the star tortoise from Appendix II to Appendix I. Currently, only a few species of freshwater tortoise are in Appendix I, but all others are included with a family listing of Testudinidae spp. in Appendix II.

However, the CITES Secretariat has recommended rejecting this proposal. According to the Secretariat, it’s “not clear what additional benefit an Appendix-I listing would provide to the conservation of the species,” which therefore “does not meet the criteria […] for its inclusion in Appendix I.”

Indian star tortoises are native to Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan, where they are protected by domestic legislation, but are extensively traded through illegal channels. Image courtesy of Dhruvraj S.

Tip of the iceberg

But proponents of greater protection say it’s the sheer scale of the star tortoise trade that should compel an uplisting of the species. Recent studies suggest that the volume of the illegal trade has risen sharply, but it’s difficult to ascertain exact numbers.

None of the three range states has permitted legal exports of live, wild-collected specimens since 1999, and since no large-scale commercial captive breeding facilities are known, the high volume of pet trade suggests that most specimens that end up in other countries are being illegally exported from Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan.

Nearly 5,500 star tortoises have been seized by customs officials and police in Sri Lanka alone since 1997, according to Anslem de Silva, the country’s leading herpetologist.

“[This] indicates a high prevalence of smuggling activities,” he told Mongabay. “Researchers here and in India are of the view that the undetected numbers could be 10 times higher. We call for enhanced protection because the species is extremely vulnerable to smuggling and we don’t want to wait till its conservation status changes in order to start taking action to conserve it.”

It’s a similar situation in India, according to Sumanth Bindumadhav, wildlife campaign manager for the Humane Society International-India.

“The argument that will be made is the sheer volume of trade,” he told Mongabay. “The Indian states of Telangana and Andhra [Pradesh] alone ship out about 55,000 tortoises every year on average, and that’s a solid argument.”

These tortoises wind up seized in Malaysia and the Philippines, in Singapore and Bangkok, on Indian trains, from cars, backpacks, and dinghies in the sea between India and Sri Lanka. But these seizures only form the tip of the iceberg. Most smuggling operations likely stay under the radar of customs and law enforcement, or are disguised as captive-bred trade.

With new technologies, the scale and ease of illegal trading has grown, with online pet shops openly selling star tortoises in a booming e-commerce trade. Image courtesy of Sumanth Bindumadhav/Humane Society International-India.

Express mail and e-commerce

Since tortoises are cold-blooded, they can be transported over long distances with minimal precautions, which is why they’re found stuffed into suitcases, boxes, or bags; in other instances, they’re sent off on their own in the luggage compartments of trains and buses, or, as the CITES proposal mentions, even shipped via express mail.

Like other conservationists, Bindumadhav said he’s certain the numbers have increased, and that technology has made the trade easier. “When I started doing this work back in 1999, there were few sources to procure these animals,” he said, “but now they are often listed on e-commerce websites, and WhatsApp has made transactions a lot easier.”

The most common destinations are East and Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and China, but there might be considerable trade to Europe and the U.S. as well. Some of these countries don’t apply the same stringent regulations that the range states do; Thailand, for example, only regulates the wild-sourced trade.

This reality gives added urgency for the proposal to uplist the star tortoise, Bindumadhav said. “A lot of countries are affected by the trade of these animals, especially with EU and U.S.A. being final destination countries in the pet trade,” he said. “Moving this species from Appendix II to I will be a huge boost for its protection in nations that have CITES legislation.”

Despite the recommendation of the CITES Secretariat to reject the proposal, it’s the countries that are party to the convention that will ultimately decide on all proposals being made. That means the recommendation “is in no manner the final word,” said Manmohan Singh Negi, the director of wildlife preservation at the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

“The biggest impact of moving this species to Appendix I will be a higher level of vigilance in more countries than the current lot,” Bindumadhav said.

The proponents say they believe the star tortoise meets the criteria for Appendix I inclusion. But more than that, they say it will send a strong signal to the markets and make a necessary and important statement for the future of star tortoise protection.


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Star tortoises are captured from the wild for the illegal pet trade in large numbers and exported to East Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe and the U.S. Image courtesy of N.A. Naseer.

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