Date: August 8, 2008

Rampant smuggling of Indian star tortoises

Laila Rajaratnam

THE ?STAR of India? that is the cute and minuscule Indian star tortoises, are the most prized products in the international pet market. These tortoises have become the target of illegal traders as it has lucrative overseas markets particularly in America and other European countries. The star tortoises are bought from local hunters or ?shikaris? who collect the reptiles from the wild and hand it over to the middlemen, who in turn supply it to the person who smuggles it out of the country mainly to Malaysia and Bangkok from where it goes to different destinations via Gulf to America and to European countries. These tortoises fetch a princely sum of $40 in Singapore pet markets to $150 in American and European markets.

Last week, the officials of the Air Intelligence Unit of the Customs foiled an attempt to smuggle out a large consignment of live star tortoises from Chennai to Bangkok. They seized 950 live star tortoises worth Rs 6.65 lakh from a Bangkok-bound passenger. A few months earlier, the custom officials at the Chennai international terminal had seized 235 live star tortoises from a 26 year-old Sri Lankan national bound for Kuala Lumpur. The seized tortoises were handed over to the wildlife officials who rehabilitated the tortoises at the Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad. Even in Mumbai, some turtles were confiscated from a rail passenger. The most popular smuggling method from India seems to be through hand baggage, which raises the question of the negligence at the exit points in the international airports. Every year, around 3, 000 tortoises are captured and rescued from being illegally marketed in the international market. Since vigilance and confiscation of the turtles at international airports has increased, smuggling via the sea route continues. A major reason for this is the ability of the star tortoise to survive without any food for 10-15 days, which makes it easy prey for smugglers.

These star tortoises, which are stunning in their beauty with the radiating ?star? pattern on its shell are small in size, with females reaching 10 to 12 inches and the males approximately six to eight inches in length and weighs between 15 gm and 250 gm and live up to 35 years on land . The clutch size is 1-10 eggs with an incubation period of 47-178 days. These minuscule tortoises are found mostly in the southern districts of India - Ramanthapuram in Tamilnadu, Kolar in Karnataka and Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh.

Besides being popular with pet collectors, the star tortoises are also sought for medicinal purposes in China. While the small, star-striped tortoises are kept as pets, the larger turtles, are used as essential ingredients in the traditional Chinese medicine and also find its way to the dinner table, as it is considered to be vital sources of energy. Smuggling activity is at its peak between July and August, the breeding period of the star tortoise. Nesting seasons coincide with the monsoons, and in south-eastern India, eggs are laid from March to June, as well as from October to January.