Investigating the illegal trade of Indian Star tortoises

November 18 2015

Our wildlife experts recently published a scientific paper on the illegal trade of Star tortoises. This is the story of two years of investigation that contributed to the study.

The paper, “A star attraction: the illegal trade of Indian Star Tortoises”, was published in the Nature Conservation journal. It brings to light the frightening scale of the trade of a species not studied for more than a decade.   

The humble beginnings of a global trade

A man wanders through a remote village in India. As he goes, he discreetly buys Indian Star tortoises from some of the villagers in the small community. With all the animals available from this village secured in a non-descript rice sack, he moves on to another village, buying more and more tortoises as he goes.

It’s taken a lot of time and effort to get so close to this man. In these communities everyone knows everyone else and outsiders are noticeable. Our investigators in the field in India have a cover-story which means they can spend time with this man without arousing too much suspicion. But it has taken weeks to get close enough to the trader, who is feared by the people in the small communities of these remote villages.

As for the tortoises in the baskets and sacks, crawling over each other in a desperate but useless attempt to escape, they’ll remain in darkness until they reach their final destination. After weeks of shadowing traders our contacts tell us that the animals will be smuggled out of India and sent to Thailand, Dubai, Malaysia and Singapore. We already have leads in Thailand, so that’s where we go.

Profits and loss

The further along the chain you go, the larger the profits get. Villagers are paid just over $1 for each animal and traders will sell them on to middlemen for five or six times as much. The value then sky rockets, as we discover walking around a market in Thailand posing as tourists. Adult Indian Stars are being sold for around $260.

There is a growing recognition from vendors who sell the tortoises ‘legally’ in public markets that they could be under investigation at any time. Many we come across are openly hostile. Some have written “f*** off, no photo!” on their shop windows. Others just close their doors, shouting at us to go away and stop taking pictures.

Not all of the vendors seem to be aware of the controversy surrounding their work however. One admits to us that his stock is from India and even gives us tips on how to smuggle Star tortoises to Europe; an admission of guilt in being part of an illegal trade chain. And across Europe it’s easy to finds this species on sale at specialist pet fairs for a staggering $760. Tortoises that could have been bought for just $1 from the villagers collecting them from the wild. 

Ending the cruel trade

The profits to be made off Indian Star tortoises are massive. In one seizure in Bangkok, Thailand, Indian Star tortoises were part of a consignment of 521 tortoises worth approximately $70,000. That’s around $159 per animal.

However most shipments go undetected and it is the tortoises that suffer. These animals are taken from the wild, smuggled in their thousands across borders in appalling conditions, only to be sold as a commodity to owners who are unlikely to have any idea what the tortoises have been through.

That is why we document the illegal capture, illicit transportation and sale of Indian Star tortoises in often difficult circumstances. We use our evidence to raise the profile of this neglected issue in the wider research community, providing the evidence for papers like “A star attraction: The illegal trade of Indian Star Tortoises”, in the Nature Conservation journal.

But we can only take our investigation so far. Ultimately, it is the authorities in Thailand and India who can put an end to the cruel and dangerous trade. At a recent operational meeting we presented our intelligence and evidence collected over two years to the law enforcement agencies of India and Thailand. They will now begin their own investigations, with our support, to combat this trade and try to bring it to an end. 

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