Officials in Madagascar were successfully able to thwart the attempts of smugglers who were trying to board a flight with about 200 rare tortoises in their baggage. The final destination of the animals was Jakarta where they would have been sold in the illegal pet market for thousands of dollars.
Of the two men nabbed by the officials, one was a local from Madagascar and the other an Indian national. The two had put 27 ploughshare tortoises, 169 radiated tortoises and one spider tortoise in three suitcases and a number of boxes. They were taking a Kenyan Airways flight to Nairobi followed by a stopover at Dubai to reach their final destination Jakarta. There they would have been sold in the pet market for tens of thousands of dollars each.
The officials said that the animals were babies and young adults. They were not picked in the airport scanning system but when the luggage was loaded into the aircraft, the authorities suspected something and discovered the illegal haul.
The tortoises are at the quarantine centres while the case is being investigated.
“It is a fantastic result that these animals were discovered and the perpetrators caught by the authorities before leaving Madagascar. It is very important that people understand that smuggling these highly threatened animals is a serious crime and we look to the judiciary to apply the full weight of the law.” Commented Richard Lewis, Director of Durrell’s Madagascar Programme.
The ploughshare tortoises are a critically endangered species. They have been threatened by all kinds of problems like their bamboo-scrub habitat burnt down, being killed for food and also the illegal pet trade. It is believed there are less than a 1000 of these reptiles living in the wild making them the rarest tortoises on earth.
In Madagascar Durell has been working to protect the species from extinction for the last 25 years. They have a captive breeding station at Ampijoroa and have already released reared 200 and released 45 tortoises into the wild. The plan is to reintroduce up to 100 animals.
They program officials says, “We have also helped to get the area designated as a national park and are working with local communities, involving them in the protection of the tortoises. Fires have been decreasing in frequency thanks to firebreaks managed by communities but the illegal pet trade remains the leading threat.”
While in the 18th and 19th century the tortoise were taken as a valuable food source by visiting sailors, the illegal pet trade became a major problem in the 1990s. Young ploughshare tortoise could fetch thousands of dollars in European and American market and it seemed like a lucrative idea for many of the locals with an average wage of dollar a day.
The current political instability in Madagascar has only aggravated the situation with big animal smugglers looting the country’s natural wealth. The buyers in South east Asia and China are also willing to pay high prices for the tortoises.
“Like most illegal trade in wildlife, we are dealing with a situation where external demand for animals is corrupting poverty stricken communities. While we are trying to support the enforcement of wildlife laws within Madagascar, we must also tackle the demand coming from overseas. This remains the single greatest challenge for the future of the ploughshare tortoise and countless other species” said Andrew Terry, Head of Durrell’s Field Programmes.
Durell has now partnered with international organisations to tackle the ever growing menace of tortoise trading.