Tortoises provide a window into the illegal wildlife trade

Indian star tortoise

The Indian star tortoise is prized as a pet, but trade in animals taken from the wild is illegal. A new study finds that, despite the laws, tens of thousands of young tortoises are trafficked every year.

Pandiyan/Flickr (CC-BY-NC 2.0)

When you think about the illegal trade in wildlife, large, charismatic species usually come to mind, like elephants or tigers, or perhaps the weirdly armored pangolin, the world’s most trafficked animal, valued for its meat and scales. The truly sad truth is, of course, that familiar victims represent just a small portion of the illegal trade in animals and animal parts. There are plenty of other species to worry about as well.

Consider the Indian star tortoise. These charming little tortoises, native to India, are sometimes found in Hindu temples where they represent the god Vishnu. But despite the fact that for the last 40 years it has been illegal in India to harvest, possess or buy and sell the animals, the tortoise trade appears to be thriving in some areas. And India is only one part of the problem, reveals a new report on the animals, published November 9 in Nature Conservation.

Neil D’Cruze of the University of Oxford and colleagues were concerned about the tortoises, which are popular pets around the world, and especially in Thailand. Because the tortoises are not native in Thailand, they are not protected by law. People can buy and sell the animals — but only if the tortoises came from a legal source, such as a breeder. Any collected from the wild in India would be illegal to trade. However, it’s difficult to identify where a tortoise came from after it has been smuggled into the country.

This Indian star tortoise has been marked with pink paint to symbolize the Hindu god Vishnu. World Animal Protection (CC-BY 4.0)
To better understand the scope of the problem, D’Cruze and his colleagues spent 2013 and 2014 documenting where tortoise poaching was happening in India, the scale of the poaching and what happened to the tortoises after they were removed from the wild.

In Gujarat, where the presence of an Indian star tortoise in a home is considered to be a good omen, the tortoises were easily obtainable in the market. While not on display, vendors showed tortoises, all in poor health, to researchers when they asked for them. And the scientists found dozens in homes and temples. But this mostly appeared to be small, local trade.

In Andhra Pradesh, in contrast, the tortoise trade had reached a large scale. Researchers embedded with rural hunter-gatherers observed the collection of 55,000 young wild tortoises over the course of 2014, with collectors receiving the equivalent of $1 to $5 for each. The animals then get wrapped in cloth or placed in boxes topped with legal produce, such as fruit or fish, to slip them past enforcement agencies. The tortoises are shipped to large cities, such as Kolkata, where middlemen take a cut of the profits, and then to countries such as Thailand or China. And even if their new owners love their pets, the tortoises don’t seem to love their new homes — owned tortoises exhibit behavioral problems such as hyperactivity, lethargy and anorexia, the researchers note.

The Indian star tortoise trade exhibits many of the features that make wildlife trafficking so tough to combat: Simply outlawing trade isn’t working, in large part because of loopholes that allow trade in captive-bred animals. There’s a heavy demand for the animals in countries far from the animals’ native habitat. Organized criminal networks exist to supply that demand. And poor locals are more than willing to participate in the animal trade because they need the money. D’Cruze and his colleagues estimate that tortoise hunting brings in some $263,000 to impoverished communities in Andhra Pradesh.

But the researchers also point to research showing what can be done about this. Instead of only focusing efforts at the source of the turtles, such as the people collecting them or the network transporting them, go after the demand side. In Malaysia, TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, has implemented several programs to increase public awareness of the illegality of the Indian star tortoise trade. They credit those programs, combined with increased enforcement, with a declining number of tortoises now found in shops.

It may be more important than ever to take action. The rules on trade of the tortoises exist not because the animals were declining in number, but because people worried that unlimited trade could wipe them out. And while the species is overdue for a conservation assessment from the IUCN, researchers have suggested that it now warrants a “vulnerable” rating — which should be a wake-up call to take action before the tortoises’ situation gets any worse.

Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is managing editor of Science News for Students. She has a B.A. in biology from Cornell University and an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She writes about ecology, plants and animals.

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