Illegal online traders turned turtle in bust
Manila, Philippines, 16th July 2020—authorities in the Philippines have arrested two online wildlife traders and seized 42 turtles and tortoises including eleven Endangered Black Spotted Turtles Geoclemys hamiltonii, a species prohibited from commercial trade globally.
This is the Philippines’ first known seizure of Black Spotted Turtles, a species heavily trafficked into the region for the illegal pet trade despite being listed in CITES* Appendix I which prohibits their international commercial trade.
The are no records of this species being legally imported into the country although six individual animals were observed for sale online in the Philippines in a 2016 Traffic study on the trade in reptiles on social media.
The National Bureau of Investigation – Environmental Crime Division (NBI-EnCD), which carried out the arrest and seizure, also found Red-footed Tortoise Chelonoidis carbonarius, Spur-thighed Tortoise Centrochelys sulcata, Diamond-backed Turtle Maloclemys terrapin among the animals seized.
Two suspects who had offered the turtles and tortoises, including the Black Spotted Turtles, for sale online were nabbed in the buy-bust operation in Manila City on 9th July.
Neither suspect had permits from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to import, possess or trade the turtles and tortoises.
In the Philippines, all non-native and native reptile species are protected under the Republic Act No 9147 or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act of 2001 and enthusiasts are required to obtain permits to keep reptiles legally.
The suspects are expected to face charges for violation of the Wildlife Act 2001 which carries a maximum penalty of PHP600,000 (USD12,105) fine and 8 years imprisonment upon conviction. As the illegal trade was conducted online, the suspects could also face charges under the Republic Act No 10175 or Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.
According to Atty. Eric Czar Nuqui, NBI-EnCD Chief, the turtles and tortoises could have been smuggled into the Philippines by using legal ornamental fish importation as a cover.
“We would like to remind and warn ornamental fish companies to disengage from wildlife smuggling. The Philippine Wildlife Act prohibits the importation of wildlife without permits and ignorance of the law is not an excuse,” he said.
Black Spotted Turtles are primarily sourced in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh for the illegal trade although it is protected by national laws throughout its natural range. Demand continues to be high, mostly in Asia. At least 10,321 live Black Spotted Turtles were confiscated in 53 seizures between April 2014 and March 2016.
The trade in reptiles online is rife in the Philippines. TRAFFIC found over 2,000 posts offering 5,082 reptiles for sale in 90 social media groups over just three months. Non-native taxa, under which Black Pond Turtles fall, were found to dominate the trade.
“Seizures and arrests like these will serve as a warning to the thousands trading reptiles illegally online that they might hide behind the anonymity the web offers, but not outrun the law. What’s crucial now is for this enforcement action to be followed up with strong prosecution and solid conviction, including deeper investigation into the network behind this smuggling operation,” said Serene Chng, TRAFFIC Programme Officer.
*CITES: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is an international agreement between governments that aims is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.