Smuggled in

The Star
July 3, 2007

Those cute star tortoises in pet shops were very likely trapped from the wild in India and smuggled into the country.

By TAN CHENG LI - [email protected] com.my 

INDIA has banned their export. So has Sri Lanka and Pakistan, the two other countries where they are found. And yet, plenty of Indian star tortoises find their way into pet shops and eventually, into Malaysian homes.  

The trade is illegal but remains rife ? all because the reptile is not listed in the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. Because of this lapse, wildlife officials say they have no jurisdiction to act on traders who deal with the species.  

Wildlife traders and pet shop operators are well aware of this legal blunder and are exploiting it to the fullest, which is why the reptiles are for sale everywhere, at prices upwards of RM50 each. Indian star tortoises (Geochelone elegans) are sought after as pets due to the ornate patterns of their carapaces, which actually serve as camouflage in their arid habitat. 

Wildlife trade monitoring body Traffic says the local pet trade is the prime driving force for smuggling of star tortoises out of India and Sri Lanka. A survey of Jakarta, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore shows the star tortoise trade to be largest in Kuala Lumpur.  
?KL is not just the end-market but a transit point for star tortoises going to Japan and elsewhere,? says Chris Shepherd, programme officer of Traffic. 

None of the star tortoises sold in local pet shops have been legally sourced ? no matter what sales personnel claim ? since all three range states disallow exports for commercial purposes. The species is further protected through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) where it is listed in Appendix II. This listing allows restricted trade with permits, and only if trade is not detrimental to survival of the species. 

Cites trade records show no legal trade whatsoever of the reptile in 2005 and 2006. There were also supposedly no shipment of star tortoises into Malaysia for commerce between 1995 and 2006. So the wide availability of star tortoises in pet stores can mean only one thing: they were all smuggled in. Claims that stocks were captive-bred are disputed as this species is not bred anywhere in the world in the quantities needed to meet commercial demand. 
 
Lax laws 
Troubled by the toll of illicit trade on wild populations of star tortoises, the Cites secretariat in 2004 urged Malaysia to amend its laws to plug the loophole. But Malaysia has yet to do so. Proposed changes to the Wild Protection Act to include widely traded and Cites-listed species, have yet to reach Parliament. Similarly, a new legislation to enable Malaysia to enforce Cites rules remains a draft. 
Without legal clout, the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) is toothless where star tortoises are concerned. Instead, the only agency that can lawfully enforce Cites rules on the reptile is Royal Customs and Excise Department. Any wildlife shipment unaccompanied by Cites permits is deemed a smuggling attempt; Customs officers can thus apprehend the suspect and seize the animals. 

?If the smuggler is caught at entry points, we can act. But if the tortoises are detected at pet shops, there is nothing much we can do as there is no provision in the Act to take action,? says Perhilitan official Haidar Khan. 

Detecting smuggling of star tortoises is no easy task, however. The reptiles are often taped up to keep them motionless and sometimes even drugged, and concealed in hand luggage. When bags are screened at airports, the animals can be mistaken for some organic matter or packed food. Many will die in the course of smuggling, due to stress and rough handling. 

Customs has foiled only three star tortoise smuggling attempts so far at KL International Airport. Over 500 animals were seized in 2003 and again in 2005. In the latest case in April, an Indian national had 404 star tortoises in his carry-on suitcase. The tortoises, 20 of which did not survive, will this week be returned to India to comply with Cites rules for smuggled wildlife. Seized tortoises in the two previous cases were also returned. 

Indian authorities? anti-smuggling efforts have seen more success. In late March, two Kuala Lumpur-bound Indian nationals were caught at Mumbai airport with over 1,200 star tortoises. The largest seizure so far occurred last September, when a Malaysian was arrested at Chennai airport for having 1,460 star tortoises in his suitcase. There were several other thwarted smuggling attempts last year, involving between 400 and 750 star tortoises bound for Kuala Lumpur, according to Indian press reports.  

The trade is massive, going by the numbers confiscated. The reptile may well be at risk of extinction if unbriddled commerce continues. Under Indian laws, a smuggler faces a Rs25,000 fine and/or three years in prison, but the lure of big profits prove irresistible to poachers and traders. 

Haidar says the Indian national caught at KLIA in April was not prosecuted because of the legal loophole. The man has been deported and further action, if any, was up to the Indian Government. It is unclear why he was not penalised under Customs Act 1967, in which a smuggling offence carries a fine of up to RM100,000 and/or a three-year jail term.  
 
Omitted species 
The star tortoise is not the only victim of deficient laws. The Wildlife Protection Act may have an extensive list of protected species but glaringly absent are amphibians, all species of freshwater turtles and tortoises, as well as freshwater fish. The result is oddities such as this: the polar bear is on the list whereas the arowana is not. 

?The exclusion of native turtles and tortoises from this Act makes them vulnerable to exploitation,? says Shepherd of Traffic. He adds that as a result of the legal loophole, popular pets such as the Madagascar radiated tortoise and the African leopard tortoise continue to be imported into Malaysia illegally. 

Shepherd stresses that all radiated tortoises sold in pet shops are illegal as they are listed under Cites Appendix I and cannot be traded. An illegal shipment of 76 leopard tortoises, a Cites Appendix II species, was found on June 12 in two parcels labelled as ?claypots? flown from Tanzania to the courier services section of the Low-Cost Carrier Terminal. 

To prevent such illegal trade, Shepherd urges for legal amendments. ?Perhilitan?s hands are tied until that Act is changed and the new law on Cities is introduced. Right now, if illegal shipments are not stopped at the point of entry by Customs, they will reach pet stores and will be sold freely. 

?Enforcement agencies at the airport and other points of entry need to become more vigilant and prevent these illegal shipments from entering the country. Smugglers should be sufficiently penalised so that other traders will think twice about entering this trade.  

?There must also be co-operation between conservation groups, government agencies and the public to end this illegal trade and stop Kuala Lumpur from being a hub for illegal wildlife trade.? 
But no one plays a bigger role than the public. It is people buying star tortoises and other wildlife as pets that drive illegitimate wildlife trade.  

?The public should be aware of the legality of animals they keep and how these animals were smuggled in,? says Haidar. 

Another thing to consider is that star tortoises do not make the best pets. Tortoise Trust estimates that 95% of them die within six months because owners fail to provide adequate diet or keep them in unsuitable conditions. So why endanger this species only to have them adorn your home or keep your kid happy for only a few months?

 

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