Big Indian Star Tortoise seizure Malaysia
Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 8th October 2019—Just a month after receiving greater protection under CITES,* almost 500 trafficked Indian Star Tortoises Geochelone elegans have been seized in Malaysia.
Long over-exploited for the illegal pet trade, the tortoise was uplisted to Appendix I of CITES in August this year, prohibiting commercial international trade in the species.
Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia have historically been a major destination for the species which are native to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, despite being banned from harvest and trade there.
On 30th September, the Indian Star Tortoises, along with two other species, were found in two separate locations in the town of Batu Pahat, in Johor by officers of the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan). Three men, including an Indian national, were arrested during the raids.
In the first raid, Perhilitan seized 89 Indian Star Tortoises and 64 Critically Endangered Asian Narrow Headed Softshell Turtles Chitra chitra and in the second raid, they seized 385 Indian Star Tortoises and 15 Indian Roofed Turtles Pangshura tecta.
This brings to 3,640 the number of Indian Star Tortoises seized in Malaysia since 2011, highlighting the ongoing demand and smuggling of the species into the country.
While classified as a “Protected Species”, the Indian Star Tortoise does not enjoy the highest level of legal protection under Peninsular Malaysia’s Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 (WCA). Illegal possession of the species carries a maximum penalty that is three times less than it could be if it was a classified as “Totally Protected.”
Under the WCA, much higher penalties apply for crimes involving juvenile or female animals—which are highly prized for the pet trade and commonly make up a sizeable portion of seizures globally.
There’s a case to be made for the Indian Star Tortoise to be classified as ‘Totally Protected’ and receive the highest protection the law has to offer in Malaysia, in keeping with its recent uplisting under CITES. Higher fines and jail times could discourage trafficking, illegal trade and purchase.
Kanitha Krishnasamy, Director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia. Separately and excluding the Johor seizure, seven Indian nationals were arrested in Malaysia from three incidents in 2016 and 2017, concerning a total of 1,102 Testudines smuggled from India, including 1,011 Indian Star Tortoises—the largest known bust involving the species in Malaysia—and at least 91 CITES Appendix I-listed Black Pond Turtles Geochlemys hamiltonii.
“Last week’s bust was a great catch and clearly demonstrates that the criminal networks orchestrating the illegal trade between India and Malaysia persist. The need for the two countries to join forces and weed these networks out has never been greater,” said Krishnasamy.
On Tuesday, TRAFFIC’s India office revealed that a minimum of 111,310 tortoises and freshwater turtles were seized in illegal wildlife trade over a 10-year period from September 2009–September 2019. This equated to more than 11,000 individuals every year or at least 200 per week since 2009. Star Tortoises accounted for at least 49% of the total animals seized.
* CITES: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.