The smugglers wrapped the 316 radiated tortoises in tinfoil to avoid x-ray detection, flew them from Madagascar to China last February, and turned them over to an airport employee who snuck them to an apartment. The goal of the scheme: to breed the creatures, sell the offspring, and rake in big bucks from the sales.
But things didn’t work out that way.
Police soon busted the employee, who worked for Guangzhou Baiyun Airport in Guangzhou, a city in southeast China. They later arrested other members of the gang, including buyers from Beijing and Guangxi, a region in southern China that borders Vietnam.
Now a court has sentenced the leader of the operation to 11 years in prison, announced the NGO Wildlife Conservation Society, which provided guidance during the prosecution. The airport worker cooperated with investigators and received a five-year punishment, and sentences for the other five defendants ranged from 21 months to seven years. The gang began smuggling tortoises as early as 2014 (investigators rescued an additional 130 tortoises).
Radiated tortoises, found in the forests of Madagascar, get their name from the intricate yellow star patterns that adorn their upper shells, or carapaces. They're critically endangered, though it's unclear exactly how many remain in the wild. Habitat loss has wiped out many of these beauties, and the ones that hang on contend with poaching for their meat and the pet trade. Trade in radiated tortoises or their parts is banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty signed by 182 countries that regulates wildlife transactions across borders. (Also see “How the Growing Trade in One Tortoise Puts Others at Risk.”)
“Through the arrest and sentencing of these smugglers, many radiated tortoises were saved—both directly through the confiscation of the animals, and by the message sent by the sentencing,” said Aili Kang, director of the Asia program of the Wildlife Conservation Society, in a press release.
Here are other wildlife crime busts, convictions, and investigations around the world announced this past week:
RHINO RENEGADES: Members of South Africa’s Hawks investigative unit busted three men accused of possessing nearly 120 rhino horns, according to the Citizen. The men allegedly intended to sell five of the horns to an undercover agent. The men were released on bail, and the case was postponed until October 12. Poachers hunt rhinos to sell their horns to Vietnam and China, where they’re used in traditional medicine and viewed as a status symbol.
TIGER TRADING: A judge sentenced a tiger skin trader and two men who killed a tiger in the Amravati District in Maharashtra, a state in central India, to three years in prison each, the Times of India reports. The poachers sold the tiger’s skin and bones, which are used in tiger wine, a potion claimed treat rheumatism and impotence.
SEAHORSE SEIZURE: French customs officers confiscated about 2,000 dead seahorses, according to the BBC. They were found in parcels from Guinea that were destined for Vietnam, where people sell them as souvenirs and for use in traditional medicine. An estimated 24 million seahorses are plucked from the wild and traded illegally each year.
SNAKES IN A SUITCASE: Police arrested a German man at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport after customs officials found dozens of snakes, lizards, and other reptiles hidden in his suitcase, DutchNews.nl reports. Forty of the reptiles didn’t survive, and the others were taken to a reptile shelter. The man was on his way from South Africa to Germany to sell the animals at a reptile fair, according to the report.
WILDLIFE AT SEA: Law enforcement officers discovered 17 protected animals inside boxes on a cargo ship at the port of Soekarno-Hatta, in Makassar, a city in eastern Indonesia, according to the country’s Jakarta Post. The police found three black eagles, two wild cats, two weasels, two otters, and six owls hidden on the ship. They arrested two people suspected of picking up the wildlife from the port.
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.