Largest seizure of Critically Endangered Ploughshare Tortoises made in Thailand
Bangkok, Thailand, 19th March 2013 – Just a day after the close a global wildlife trade conference here, authorities at Suvarnabhumi International Airport made two big seizures, discovering hundreds of threatened tortoises and apprehending two smugglers. Among the tortoises seized were some of the rarest in the world.
On Friday, authorities arrested a 38-year-old Thai man as he was attempting to collect a bag containing tortoises from Madagascar, from a luggage carousel, at the airport. The bag was registered to a 25-year-old woman who had flown from Madagascar to Bangkok via Nairobi the same day.
Royal Thai Customs officers and their counterparts in the CITES management authority found 54 Ploughshare Tortoises Astrochelys yniphora and 21 Radiated Tortoises Astrochelys radiata, both of which are assessed as being Critically Endangered.
Ploughshare and Radiated Tortoises are endemic to Madagascar, totally protected in the country and are both listed in CITES Appendix I. The wild population of Ploughshare Tortoises, considered among the rarest species in the world, is estimated to be as few as 400 individuals, and is declining fast.
The Malagasy woman was also arrested, said Dr Theerapat Prayurasiddhi, Deputy Director of Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation at a press conference on Friday.
Theerapat told press that the Thai man caught picking up the bag had been arrested earlier this year on another wildlife smuggling charge. He also expressed concern that the man had been able to access the baggage collection area despite not being a passenger and believed that he must have been aided by several other people who were part of this smuggling attempt. He said this aspect would be thoroughly investigated.
Both the Thai man and the Malagasy woman are expected to face charges under Thai law.
Earlier the same day, CITES officers found 300 Indian Star Tortoises Geochelone elegans (CITES Appendix II) and 10 Black Pond Turtles Geoclemys hamiltonii (CITES Appendix I) when they inspected an unclaimed bag on a carousel in the airport at 8.40 a.m. The Indian Star Tortoise is heavily traded as an exotic pet despite being legally protected in range countries—India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. All three have banned commercial export of the species under national legislation, making shipments from these countries illegal anywhere in the world.
Over the past few years, authorities in this airport have made dozens of seizures of Indian Star Tortoises; most of which were found in the luggage of passengers flying into the country. In the last three years alone (2010–2012), Thai authorities have seized more than 4300 tortoises and freshwater turtles, 50% of which were Indian Star Tortoises. Authorities in India have similarly intercepted numerous smuggling attempts of Indian Star Tortoises to Thailand.
At the recently concluded meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), delegates from Thailand and Madagascar discussed plans to share intelligence and co-operate in other ways to curb the smuggling of wildlife from Madagascar to Thailand, Theerapat noted during the press conference.
He said the discussion included the plan for a Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries to enhance communication between counterparts, jointly raising the profile of the issue in government and within the broader public, carrying out joint investigations and working towards the repatriation of seized animals.
“TRAFFIC congratulates the Thai authorities for these very significant seizures” says Dr Chris R. Shepherd, Deputy Director of TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia. “The criminals behind this shipment of Ploughshare Tortoises have effectively stolen over 10% of the estimated population in the wild. They should not be allowed to get away with it. They should face the full force of the law.” “We urge authorities to go after the criminal masterminds behind these shipments and break the trade chains that threaten these incredibly rare animals”, he said.