Published 29 August 2012

Almost 900 Star Tortoises seized in Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand, 29th August 2012—A suitcase filled with a whopping 890 Indian Star Tortoises has been seized, and an Indian national arrested at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International airport.

Almost 900 Indian Star Tortoises were found stuffed into pillow cases inside a suitcase © Royal Thai Customs

Acting on a tip off, Tourist Police and Royal Thai Customs officers stopped the 26-year-old man who attempted to smuggle the tortoises into the country on a Thai Airways flight from Calcutta to Bangkok, on Monday 27th August.

The tortoises, all juveniles, were found stuffed into six pillow cases and hidden inside the suspect’s suitcase.

A statement has been taken from the suspect, a resident of Chennai in South India, who is expected to face charges under Thailand’s Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act, Customs Act and the Animals Epidemics Act. 

he Indian Star Tortoise Geochelone elegans is highly prized as an exotic pet and remains a target for collection and trade despite being afforded legal protection across the species range countries of India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. All three countries have banned the species’s international commercial export under national legislation, making all shipments from these countries illegal anywhere in the world. 

Famous for the beautiful patterns on their shells, the tortoises have turned up in several major seizures at airports throughout Southeast Asia, particularly Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. In a similar case in September, 2010 Customs officials at Suvarnabhumi Airport stopped a Pakistani man with 1,140 Indian Star tortoises in his suitcase.

Since 2011, published reports show that Thai authorities have stopped at least three other smugglers at Suvarnabumi Airport with at least 131 Indian Star Tortoises hidden among other illegal wildlife in their suitcases, while Indian and Bangladesh authorities have foiled the trafficking of over 800 Star Tortoises to Thailand.

Just four days ago, TRAFFIC observed at least 122 Indian Star Tortoises openly for sale at Bangkok’s popular weekend market, Chatuchak, confirming that the trade is indeed very active in Thailand. Most of the tortoises observed were juvenile animals, the size of those seized at the airport; while a handful was adult tortoises. These observations along with Monday’s seizure point to a huge demand for this species and that trade in the tortoises in Thailand continues despite its illegal nature.

Indian Star Tortioses found in a suitcase © Royal Thai Customs

“For a slow moving animal, Indian Star Tortoises are racing through the illegal trade. Still, TRAFFIC is pleased to see that the Thai authorities have come out ahead of the smugglers this time,” said Dr William Schaedla, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia’s Regional Director.

“TRAFFIC also wants to see authorities publicize the outcome of the prosecution in this case. Actual information on what happens to smugglers in the region is sparse. People must know that there is a heavy price to pay for trafficking animals if we are ultimately to win the battle against wildlife crime,” he said.

TRAFFIC also urged Thai authorities to increase enforcement efforts at local markets to remove Indian Star Tortoises while working with their counterparts in India to ensure a speedy repatriation of the tortoises seized this week, as authorities in Malaysia and Indonesia have done in the past. 

In March, Indonesian authorities repatriated 19 Indian Star Tortoises that they seized at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in November 2011. Malaysian authorities seized 699 Indian Star tortoises in two separate operations in mid-2011, and sent 600 surviving tortoises back to India in December the same year.