They’re pretty. They’re harmless. And they won’t give you salmonella, unlike the once popular pet, the red-eared slider turtle. Indian star tortoises are now the stars of the pet trade.
They used to be a species conservationists didn’t worry about. Occasionally one would show up at a Hindu temple as an object of worship (they still do—the god Vishnu is believed to have been reincarnated as a tortoise), but there just wasn’t much of a market for them.
Now, reptile experts and the broader conservation community are worried. The illegal trade in Indian star tortoises has skyrocketed. Back in 2004, one estimate figured about 10,000 to 20,000 were being taken illegally from the wild over the tortoises’ entire range, which encompasses India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
But in just a single rural village center in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, middlemen collected at least 55,000 Indian star tortoises poached from nearby smaller settlements in 2014, according to a recent study in the journal Nature Conservation by the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit.
Not only that, but the booming trade in Indian star tortoises is also likely contributing to the decline in even rarer species—the radiated tortoise and the ploughshare tortoise, of which there are fewer than 200 adults left in the wild.
What we found was pretty horrific. The numbers are adding up to something quite staggering.
“What we found was pretty horrific,” said Aniruddha Mookerjee, of the London-Based nonprofit World Animal Protection and one of the study’s authors. “The numbers are adding up to something quite staggering.”
It’s a warning about other species we think are stable, said Peter Paul van Dijk, the director of the tortoise and freshwater turtle program at Conservation International and one of the world’s leading experts on the animals.
“A change in circumstances allowed something that was never a trade to develop into a [robust] one,” van Dijk said. The possible ripple effects—in this case the easier trafficking of even rarer animals too—makes the warning all the more dire.
Aside from the huge numbers, there’s another problem: The animals being poached from the wild are primarily babies and juveniles. They’re easier to smuggle because they’re smaller and lighter. That’s good in that it means there are still adults around to replenish the population, but it’s also worrisome: Once the parents die, that could lead to population collapse.
“Intensive collection for export trade means that any hatchling or juvenile will be found and removed well before it can grow up and join the adult reproducing population,” van Dijk said. The existing adults will eventually die of old age, leaving the area without any tortoises at all.
The Indian star tortoise isn’t now considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the international body that sets conservation statuses for species around the world. But it’s on its way to to being listed as “vulnerable,” a step below endangered, said van Dijk, who is also part of the IUCN’s turtle and tortoise specialist group that is evaluating the Indian star tortoise’s conservation status.
The tortoise is protected both in India, where it’s illegal to own or trade them commercially, and internationally. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which regulates the international wildlife trade, requires a permit to export them from their home country to ensure that their trade doesn’t harm population levels.
Despite these legal protections, which experts agree are adequate on paper, the illegal trade has skyrocketed.
Slipping Through Loopholes
It began with the Asian turtle crisis. As China opened itself up to economic trade after the Tiananmen Square massacre, Chinese demand for luxury items—in particular, softshell turtle meat—skyrocketed. Supply increased with demand, and by 2009, up to three-quarters of Asia’s 90 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises were threatened, according to an IUCN estimate.
The Indian star tortoise was not part of this crisis. But with trade routes well established from the food trade, it was only a matter of time before these routes began supplying the exotic pet trade as well—and only a matter of time before traffickers began trading Indian star tortoises to meet that demand.
“We’ve been noticing this going on for at least a decade now,” said Mookerjee of the growing Indian star tortoise trade. But “we weren’t really sure what the size of the business was.”
Still, the collection 55,000 Indian star tortoises that the researchers and their team observed in a single community was unexpected. “We were just shocked at the pure volume of animals that was being shifted,” said Neil D’Cruze, another of the study’s authors.
The traits that helped tortoises outlast dinosaurs—their shells and slow metabolisms—are now being exploited by traffickers.
Part of the reason for the increase in trade may be that Indian star tortoises are more resilient than other types of exotic pets. The traits that helped tortoises outlast dinosaurs—their shells and slow metabolisms—are now being exploited by traffickers.
“That’s not to say that these animals don’t suffer, taped up and stuffed into suitcases,” D’Cruze said. Their shells crack, they get stressed, and diseases spread quickly since they’re packed into close quarters. Many don’t survive the smuggling process. “However, criminal actors are simply building this cruelty and mortality rates into their business model and are still able to make money.”
Indian star tortoises are collected from the wild by rural villagers, who then sell them to middlemen. Then the tortoises get passed to highly organized, professional traffickers who get them out of the country and into Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, and other wildlife trade hubs. That’s where they become legal.
Thailand, for example, has laws protecting native turtles and tortoises, but it has no laws against trade in nonnative species—such as the Indian star tortoise—that were taken illegally in another country. So if a trafficker can smuggle the illegally taken tortoises out of India and through Thai customs, they’re safe. And legal.
Along the way, the shipments of tortoises sometimes acquire falsified paperwork indicating that they were captive-bred. That makes it easier to trade to Americans and Europeans, who are also big customers of the species, where enforcement of wildlife laws is stricter.
No one ever expected these loopholes to be exploited so blatantly, van Dijk said.
A cover for other species
The trade in Indian star tortoises now provides cover for trade in species that are even more at risk: Madagascar’s radiated tortoise and ploughshare tortoise, both critically endangered. The radiated tortoise has a starry pattern on its shell, very similar to the Indian star tortoise, and the ploughshare has a protective neck plate below its chin shaped like the blade of a plow.
In a shipment of baby Indian star tortoises out of Thailand, which is legal even if the tortoises themselves were poached from India, who’s going to notice one or two almost identical radiated tortoises tucked among them? Or a tan ploughshare, of which there are fewer than 200 mature adults left in the wild? It’s not easy for an overworked, undertrained customs agent to pick the critically endangered smuggled individual from the mass of legal ones.
In a shipment of baby Indian star tortoises, who’s going to notice one or two almost identical, but critically endangered, radiated tortoises tucked among them?
“The identification of these reptiles can be extremely difficult for enforcement authorities, who effectively must also be able to identify any species at any time, be they fish or fowl,” D’Cruze said. Without knowing where a species came from, even trained scientists who have dedicated themselves to understanding the different characteristics of various species can have a hard time identifying animals, he said. “This does present the perfect opportunity for criminal actors to pass protected species off as unprotected species.”
One trafficking attempt was too big to miss: In 2013, Thai customs agents caught a pair of smugglers at the airport with 300 Indian star tortoises, 21 radiated tortoises, and 54 ploughshares—an estimated 10-plus percent of the entire remaining population of ploughshares.
“Mixing in similar-looking animals of different, [rarer] species in legal trade shipments,” van Dijk said, “is a trick as old as there have been animal trade regulations.”
This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.