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Friday, February 14, 2014

Indian star tortoises - imported and exported ~ not through proper channel !!

Long ago, Mambalam mosquitoes were famous … now you find them everywhere ~ lambasting theories that ‘mosquitoes won’t fly high’ and ‘areas closer to seashore, they will not live’… perhaps they are used to the smoke of old-fashioned mosquito coils too… some reports say that the pioneer brand ‘tortoise’ did make a comeback after taking a battering from electronic mat devices. 

The word ‘Testudine’ may mean nothing to us… Turtles belong to its order.  Tortoises and Turtles are both reptiles from the family of Testudines, the major difference being that the land dwelling ones are called Tortoises and water dwelling are called Turtles.

The Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans) is a species of tortoise found in dry areas and scrub forest in India and Sri Lanka. It is found in Western India, Pakistan and South Eastern India too. In general, star tortoises from northern India reportedly are larger and darker, with less contrasting shell patterns, than those from southern India.  which tend to be smaller and have more contrasting, star-like shell patterns. Indian star tortoises are primarily herbivorous. The majority of the diet consists of grasses, herbaceous leaves, fruit, and flowers……… when food is scarce, such as in the seasonally dry, hot periods, they will become inactive and go long periods without eating.

One alarming statistics puts it that a very high % of Indian star tortoises are disappearing from the wild due to predators of which humans tops the list.  Hunters collect them from their natural habitat and sell them to middlemen who sell them to smugglers. Smugglers take them out of the country and usually sell them in Bangkok (Thailand) or Malaysia. From there the tortoises are shipped to various markets and dealers in Europe and North America where they are traded as pets !  They are also being extirpated through their use as an ingredient in some traditional Chinese medicines.

star tortoises - The Hindu photo of earlier instance 

Here is a report of Times of India of date, which mentions that 420 star tortoises were seized at airport, and  6 flyers held.  Air customs officials seized 420 live star tortoises at Chennai airport from six passengers who were headed to Bangkok on Wednesday. The passengers, from Sivaganga district, have been detained for enquiry.  The tortoises were kept in sachets and covered in carbon or graphite papers to prevent detection by baggage scanners. Sources said the passengers were about to board a flight to Bangkok when they were detained at 9.30pm.

“Officials who were scanning luggage found suspicious contents in a few bags and pulled them out. Rechecks revealed that the bags contained star tortoises,” said an airport official. All passengers except one person were first-time travellers. Noor-ul-Ameen, one of detained, had made three to four trips to Bangkok in the last five months. Investigations revealed that they were delivering the consignment in return for money. They had met in a house at Mannady and then proceeded to the airport. Sources said the tortoises must have been sourced from forest areas in Andhra Pradesh. Star tortoises are not allowed to be exported as they are a protected species under the Wildlife Protection Act.

It is stated that it has been a while since tortoises were seized at the airport. Customs officials have heightened surveillance at the international departure terminal to find out if more such consignments are being smuggled out of the country. The airport had seen quite a few cases of smuggling of wildlife in the mid-2000s. This is the first case after nearly a year at Chennai airport. In one of the biggest catches, air customs had seized 9,000 baby tortoises from a passenger who arrived from Kuala Lumpur in March last year. There were four major wildlife seizures including star tortoises and ornamental fish since 2007.

In March, the person carrying them had tried to walk out through green channel with 3 bags when he was accosted by Customs who later found that there was this consignment of turtles.  Reportedly the seized tortoises were quarantined by Forest officials and sadly most of them died in a couple of days.  Some activists had questioned the move to house the surviving tortoises at a private clinic, instead of taking them government’s quarantine centre in Medavakkam, as per government norms.

If you have missed out – those 9000 were brought in to India from Kuala Lumpur – while the present haul of 420 were tried to be smuggled out of the country. Which is the market ? and which is the source ?? – one wonders !!!

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

14th Feb 2014.

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