Loopholes in cruel illegal wildlife trade are driving tortoises towards extinction
The survival of the Indian Star tortoise is being threatened by a booming illegal trade, that causes extreme suffering
to tortoises, due to a growing international demand for tortoises as exotic pets, wildlife experts warn today.
In the first study to examine this trade in India for over 15 years, researchers from World Animal Protection have
established that more than 55,000 tortoises are being poached from just one site in South East India each year alone.
World Animal Protection discovered evidence of a thriving international criminal operation, with tortoises smuggled in
boxes hidden under food items such as vegetables or fish. Many don’t survive the long and illegal journey and those who
do survive, suffer in confined spaces and may die prematurely from malnutrition, suffocation or the overwhelming stress
The study, published today in the scientific journal ‘Nature Conservation describes Thailand, one of the primary
destinations for the smuggled animals, as a key hub of illegal trade activity. There are also legitimate concerns that
poachers have found a legal loophole in facilitating illegal poaching from the wild. For instance, it’s illegal in India
to possess and commercially trade star tortoises but not in Thailand, which has made them the most frequently seized
tortoise recorded by Thai authorities between 2008 and 2013.
Dr Neil D’Cruze, Head of Wildlife Research at World Animal Protection said:
“We were shocked at the sheer scale of the illegal trade in tortoises and the cruelty inflicted upon them. Over 15 years
ago wildlife experts warned that the domestic trade in Indian star tortoises needed to be contained before it could
become established as an organised international criminal operation.
“Unfortunately it seems that our worst nightmare has come true - sophisticated criminal gangs are exploiting both
impoverished rural communities and urban consumers alike. Neither group is fully aware how their actions are threatening
the welfare and conservation of these tortoises.”
The Indian star tortoise is famed for the ‘star-like’ radiating patterns of its shell that serves as camouflage in the
wild. However, it is this same patterning that also makes it a popular pet to collectors around the world.
Mr Gajender Sharma, India Director at World Animal Protection added:
“Despite being protected in India since the 1970’s, legal ‘loopholes’ in other Asian countries such as Thailand and
China appear to undermine India’s enforcement efforts. They are smuggled out of the country in confined spaces, it’s
clear there is little or no concern about the welfare of these reptiles.
“World Animal Protection is concerned about the suffering that these tortoises endure. We are dealing with an organised
international criminal operation which requires an equally organised international approach to combat it”.
To help save Indian star tortoises from extinction and close the loophole, the wildlife experts are calling for better
cooperation between national enforcement agencies and for Thailand to prohibit private ownership by extending its
domestic legislation to also cover non-native species.