Star tortoise

Loopholes in cruel illegal wildlife trade are driving tortoises towards extinction


More than 55,000 tortoises are being poached from just one site in South East India each year alone

The survival of the Indian star tortoise is being threatened by a booming illegal trade that causes extreme suffering to tortoises, due to a growing international demand for tortoises as exotic pets, wildlife experts warn today.

In the first study to examine this trade in India for over 15 years, researchers from World Animal Protection have established that more than 55,000 tortoises are being poached from just one site in South East India each year alone.

World Animal Protection discovered evidence of a thriving international criminal operation, with tortoises smuggled in boxes hidden under food items such as vegetables or fish. Many don’t survive the long and illegal journey, and those who do survive, suffer in confined spaces and may die prematurely from malnutrition, suffocation or the overwhelming stress of confinement.

The study, published today in the scientific journal Nature Conservation, describes Thailand, one of the primary destinations for the smuggled animals, as a key hub of illegal trade activity. There are also legitimate concerns that poachers have found a legal loophole in facilitating illegal poaching from the wild. For instance, it’s illegal in India to possess and commercially trade star tortoises but not in Thailand[1], which has made them the most frequently seized tortoise recorded by Thai authorities between 2008 and 2013.

Dr. Neil D’Cruze, Head of Wildlife Research at World Animal Protection, said:

“We were shocked at the sheer scale of the illegal trade in tortoises and the cruelty inflicted upon them. Over 15 years ago, wildlife experts warned that the domestic trade in Indian star tortoises needed to be contained before it could become established as an organized international criminal operation.

“Unfortunately it seems that our worst nightmare has come true - sophisticated criminal gangs are exploiting both impoverished rural communities and urban consumers alike. Neither group is fully aware how their actions are threatening the welfare and conservation of these tortoises.”  

The Indian star tortoise is famed for the ‘star-like’ radiating patterns of its shell that serve as camouflage in the wild. However, it is this same patterning that also makes it a popular pet to collectors around the world.

Mr. Gajender Sharma, India Director at World Animal Protection, added:

“Despite star tortoises being protected in India since the 1970s, legal ‘loopholes’ in other Asian countries such as Thailand and China appear to undermine India’s enforcement efforts. Star tortoises are smuggled out of the country in confined spaces, it’s clear there is little or no concern about the welfare of these reptiles.

“World Animal Protection is concerned about the suffering that these tortoises endure. We are dealing with an organized international criminal operation which requires an equally organized international approach to combat it.”

To help save Indian star tortoises from extinction and close the loophole, the wildlife experts are calling for better cooperation between national enforcement agencies and for Thailand to prohibit private ownership by extending its domestic legislation to also cover non-native species.

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