Uncovering the tortoise trade route
A well-organised network of smugglers is trafficking in India's star tortoises, much sought after in the international market.
For years, a pair of smugglers - Umesh Kishore Tekani, alias Mexx, in Singapore and Wai Ho Gin, nicknamed Bobby Gin, based in California - smuggled Indian star tortoises, among others, into the United States by calling them "toy figures." Another character, John Pen Tokosh, had tried the same trick, which landed him in prison for a year in June 2006.
While our papers today are full of tiger and lion poaching, there is an equally well-organised criminal network of smugglers ripping off our star tortoises, much sought after in the international pet trade. In India, star tortoises feature in Schedule IV, the lowest rank of protection under the Wildlife Protection Act. A smuggler can be penalised with a maximum of three years in prison or a Rs.25,000 fine but they are rarely jailed for trading in a Schedule IV animal. Besides, the people apprehended are usually just the couriers or mules and not the actual kingpins of the trade. Local hunters, reportedly members of the Hakke Pakke tribe, catch these animals from the dry scrub forests of Chittoor and Madanapalle districts in Andhra Pradesh and Kolar district in Karnataka and they are paid no more than $1 for each animal. By the time the animal reaches American shores each tortoise can fetch anywhere from $350 to $1,000.
Occasionally there have been fanciful claims that the seized animals were captive-bred. However, such an assertion is merely to cover the government's pathetic enforcement record and to downplay the impact on the wild population. In a communication to TRAFFIC (the trade monitoring arm of the Worldwide Fund for Nature) in 2000, Conservation International's tortoise expert, Peter Paul van Dijk, wrote: "This species is not bred anywhere in the world in the quantities needed to supply the commercial demand."
In 2005, wildlife authorities claimed smuggling had declined but in reality it was merely a breakdown in intelligence gathering. At least 9,500 Indian star tortoises squeaked through their hands that year and were traded internationally with legal documents. "Also noteworthy is the fact that most of the seizures in India have occurred at airports. This indicates that there is either a total lack of intelligence gathering by the wildlife authorities or connivance at the lower levels," says an official of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
Tortoises are smuggled out of India to transit countries such as Thailand and Malaysia. An animal dealer who was raided in Bangkok in January 2007 produced Lebanese export papers for 1,000 Indian star tortoises! Chris Shepherd of TRAFFIC-Malaysia writes: "The only department within Peninsular Malaysia which can currently enforce CITES regulations for the Indian Star Tortoise is the Royal Customs and Excise Department." If Customs fails to nab an illegal shipment as it enters the country, then the smugglers are home free. They can then sell them openly without fear of prosecution as indeed happens. According to a study conducted over a two-week period by TRAFFIC-Malaysia, 173 Indian star tortoises were offered for sale in 24 out of 31 pet shops visited. The shopkeepers reported that more than 80 per cent of the star tortoises they received were from India while the rest came from Sri Lanka.
The ready availability of Indian star tortoises in Malaysia is illustrated by Mr. Shepherd's statement: "When asked if it was possible to acquire a large batch of 20-30 animals, traders usually requested only 1-2 days to acquire the tortoises."
At the last meeting of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) nations in 2004, Malaysia gave an assurance that it will amend its laws to fix this loophole, but nothing has been done and stars continue to be smuggled through its borders. CITES strives to control the international trade in wildlife species by implementing licensing regulations. As a CITES Appendix II animal, the Indian star tortoise needs an export permit only to facilitate its legal crossing of international boundaries (besides any local legal restrictions).
The export permits can be issued only "if the export will not be detrimental to the survival of the species." And therein lies the crux of the issue : except for a couple of studies, Indian star tortoises have never been studied in the wild, nor their distribution and status mapped. So nobody knows how the current levels of exploitation have impacted a slow breeding reptile. But regardless of these concerns there are some countries (where star tortoises are not found) unscrupulous enough to issue the export permits.
According to the CITES trade database (www.cites.org) , between 1975 and 1994, about 9,200 star tortoises were exported with CITES certificates, mostly to Japan. Aware that wild-caught, smuggled Indian star tortoises were finding their way into international trade with export permits issued by some countries, CITES issued a Notification in 1994 recommending that its member countries should not accept any export or re-export permit for tortoises unless these documents were verified. There followed a five-year lull (if about 270 animals a year could be called that) and then in 2000, Lebanon entered the picture and the total number of tortoises traded under CITES began rocketing.
The smugglers picked their country right - Lebanon is not a signatory to CITES and since 2003 has re-exported more than 9,000 Indian star tortoises claimed to be captive bred (in Kazakhstan of all places!). However, Kazakhstan, a party to CITES, has not reported exporting a single star tortoise since 2000 (the year it became party to CITES).
Lebanon also exported 6,000 more tortoises without disclosing the source. There are only three countries in the world where the species is found - India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - and in the last 12 years they collectively exported 1,038 star tortoises only. So where did the thousands of tortoises come from? All indications are that they came from India routed variously through Thailand and Malaysia with Lebanon laundering these illegally procured animals by providing fraudulent export documents.
Between 1995 and 2005, a whopping 32,000 tortoises were traded and of these Japan accepted the export permits for 20,000, contravening the CITES notification of 1994. From 2002 to 2004, Afghanistan, a country where the star tortoise is not found in the wild, exported more than 5000 of them listed as "wild caught" to Japan. While Japan is the single largest market for scores of laundered tortoises, thousands more are smuggled to the high paying markets of Europe and the U.S.
Between 2001 and 2004 less than 7,000 star tortoises were confiscated across India, while 19,000 were recorded to have been traded internationally with fraudulent papers. Within the last few years, in an act of "spring-cleaning," several old CITES Notifications were cancelled including the one on trade in tortoises. Today there is no cautionary advice on the subject. In 2005 (at the same time that Indian authorities were claiming a slump in smuggling) the trade hit an all-time high of 9,480 animals. (There are no figures for 2006 on the CITES database yet.) If these are the "legally" traded numbers worldwide, the numbers smuggled without papers are definitely several times higher.
Meanwhile the U.S. authorities showed a lack of creative imagination by refusing to see the star tortoises as "action figures." After four years of surveillance, they swung into action on May 17, 2007, and indicted Bobby Gin (and Mexx if he's ever caught) on a dozen charges of conspiracy, smuggling and money laundering. If convicted on the first two, they'll get five years in prison and 20 years for the latter.
Obviously India must slam down on wildlife crime while pushing countries such as Malaysia and Thailand to do more to prosecute smugglers. Japan has to be coerced to reject dubious export permits such as those issued by Lebanon. CITES needs to demonstrate that it is indeed an effective mechanism in controlling such illegal international trade. How can CITES signatory countries so blatantly accept documents from non-party nations such as Lebanon? When the tortoise route spans the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and the U.S., a united stand against smuggling is the only way to stop exploitation of the species in the wild. Hopefully, the upcoming meeting of CITES nations to be held at The Hague between June 3 and 15 will re-assess measures taken against the global illegal trade in wildlife and perhaps this charismatic little tortoise will win a reprieve.