The Hindu
March 26, 2006

Seizure of a different kind at airport in capital

PRIZED CATCH: Indian star tortoises seized from the international airport in the capital on Friday night.
Photo: S. Gopakumar

Thiruvananthapuram: The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) on Friday seized 482 Indian star tortoises from the baggage of a passenger bound for Colombo from the international airport here.

Three persons hailing from Tamil Nadu were arrested in connection with the seizure. The DRI authorities said the specimens were bound for aquariums and pet stores in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

The tortoises, including hatchlings, were found jam-packed in plastic covers. The consignment was intercepted by the DRI after the "check-in" baggage was examined using an X-Ray device by the airport Customs. None of the specimens showed signs of life when the DRI opened the baggage around 9 p.m., an official said. The tortoises started moving by Saturday morning.

An official said the accused had weakened the tortoises to prevent movement by drugging and dehydrating the specimens. The authorities said several of the tortoises could die from stress and rough handling sustained during packing. The tortoises were later handed over to the Forest Department.

A senior Forest Department official said that the Indian star tortoise, Geochelone elegans, found in the arid regions of south India was a highly prized specimen in the illegal wildlife trade.
"The reptile is protected under the Indian Wildlife Act and trade is banned under Appendix-II of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)."
The population of the star tortoise is rapidly declining in India due to loss of habitat and poaching. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 star tortoises, mostly hatchlings, are collected illegally for the international pet trade.

The tortoise is so named because of its star-like patterns on the carapace.
The ornate pattern, intended to serve as a camouflage in its dry habitat, has made the star tortoise a popular pet among collectors around the world. Small-sized tortoises and hatchlings fetch a higher price in the black market.

A Customs Department official said it was very difficult to detect smuggling of star tortoises through air and sea ports. It could survive without food for days and lacked any vocal expression.
"On X-Ray, the animals could be mistaken for some organic matter or packed food," he said.
India has 26 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises and five species of marine turtles. Many of the species are exploited for food, keeping as pets and for use in traditional medicine. The shells of Indian tortoises are used for making spectacle frames, boxes, earrings, bangles, cigarette holders and pieces of art.

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