April 2008

Tortoise thieves

16 Apr 2008, 0840 hrs IST,Priya M Menon

Growing demand in the far East is feeding illegal trade in star tortoises through Chennai. Priya M Menon tracks the links between suppliers, touts & markets.

SVenkatesan(name changed) had checked in for a flight bound for Kuala Lumpur on January 3 this year. After immigration clearance, he headed for the customs counter. Routine questioning by customs officials took a turn when Venkatesan?s answers appeared evasive. His check-in baggage, a stroller suitcase, was recalled and searched. What emerged was not electronic goods or gold bars, but 335 star tortoises worth Rs 3.63 lakh.

From January 2007 till date, 5,300 star tortoises worth Rs 50 lakh have been seized from Chennai?s international airport alone. All of them were destined for Kuala Lumpur. Despite a ban on trade in the species, every year thousands of them are smuggled out to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand through Chennai, which is being increasingly used as a transit point by traffickers.

"Smugglers favour Chennai because of its location," says a wildlife official. From Chennai, it?s just a few hours by air to destinations in the Far East, where star tortoises are prized as pets.

The star tortoise is a lesser protected species as it falls under Schedule IV of the Wildlife Protection Act, which makes it illegal to possess or trade in the species, but does not levy hefty penalties or make the offence non-bailable. The risk of being caught is something the courier is willing to incur, given the prospect of a sizeable payoff at the other end. A live star tortoise can fetch up to Rs 1,000 to Rs 3,000 in the international market, depending on the size.

The trade originates from a network of suppliers who fish along the east coast. They supply to traders who are in contact with agents in Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai or Kochi. These agents have links in Malaysia and other places in the Far East.

The people apprehended are couriers posing as tourists. "Some are not even aware of what they are carrying," says C Rajan, commissioner of customs (air). "Someone hands a suitcase to them at the airport and all they have to do is deliver it to another person on landing. They are paid about Rs 5,000 per trip." So the kingpins remain unidentified.

Even if they are arrested, the legal process tends to drag. The customs department initially books offenders under the Customs Act and hands them over to the wildlife authorities. Under the Customs Act, a show cause notice is issued within six months after which a hearing is fixed and a penalty charged which varies from 10-50 per cent of the value of goods seized, depending on whether they are first-time offenders. If the person doesn?t appear for a hearing, he is given more opportunities. In case of seizures made last year, the first notice has just been issued.

The wildlife department can book an offender under the act for illegal possession and transport of wildlife. Chief wildlife warden can also act as a quasi judicial official. "He can fine up to Rs 25,000 and grant a pardon," says RK Samal, regional deputy director, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, Southern Region.

The wildlife department, however, insists that no case is compounded. "We have produced all the offenders in court. Usually they spend about 30 days in judicial custody before they succeed in getting bail," says a senior of-ficial in the department who does not wish to be quoted. "Last year we did get two convictions through speedy trials; the offenders got three years imprisonment, which acted as a deterrent."

With heightened security measures in Chennai, the tortoises are being routed through Kochi, Bangalore and Mumbai, where seizures have been made.

Though no seizures have been made in Chennai since January this year, with the breeding season commencing in June, wildlife authorities and customs officials are on alert. "Chief Wildlife Wardens at possible collection points in AP and north Karnataka are working to prevent collection while we are working closely with the customs and the intelligence bureau," says a senior official in the wildlife department.


Wildlife Protection Act empowers forest officers, police to take action under Section 50 (1). But, it does not empower Customs officers to act.

Section 2 (2) bans possession of sea creatures, but does not talk about smuggling. This is coming in way of checking smuggling activity. Only when consignments are detected that action can be taken