Smuggler's Paradise: Hundreds of Tortoises Seized in Malaysia

Smuggler's Paradise: Hundreds of Tortoises Seized in Malaysia
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What you need to know

The tortoises included 325 critically endangered Radiated tortoises and five critically endangered Ploughshare tortoises.

  • Customs officials at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport raided the cargo area of the airport on May 14 following a tip-off and found the tortoises packed into five boxes labeled as stones.
  • The boxes reportedly arrived on an Etihad Airways flight from Antananarivo airport in Madagascar and were registered with a fake business address in Malaysia.
  • No arrests have been made yet, but the case is being investigated under Section 135(1)(a) of the Customs Act 1967, officials say.

Malaysian customs officials have seized 330 tortoises that were smuggled into the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

The tortoises, which included 325 Radiated tortoises as well as five Ploughshare tortoises, were all found to be alive, Abdul Wahid Sulong, deputy director of the customs department, told the AFP. The tortoises are believed to be worth nearly US$280,000. Both species are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.

“It is a big haul. It could be for the local market or for re-export. We are investigating,” Sulong said in a statement.

The customs officials raided the cargo area of the airport on May 14 following a tip-off and found the tortoises packed into five boxes labeled as stones. The boxes reportedly arrived on an Etihad Airways flight from Antananarivo airport in Madagascar and were registered with a fake business address in Salak Tinggi, Selangor in Malaysia.

“In this specific incident, an attempt to illegally transport tortoises was made as part of a shipment that originated from another carrier during transit at Abu Dhabi International Airport,” an Etihad Airways spokesperson told Gulf News. “Etihad Airways will cooperate with the concerned authorities and provide any information that may assist the investigation of the incident.”

No arrests have been made yet, Sulong said, but the case is being investigated under Section 135(1)(a) of the Customs Act 1967. Those found guilty of illegally transporting the threatened tortoises to Malaysia can be imprisoned for up to three years or can be fined a maximum of 20 times the value of the smuggled items, or both, according to New Straits Times.

The customs officials will hand the seized tortoises to the Wildlife Protection and National Parks Department, Sulong added.

Ploughshare tortoise (Astrochelys yniphora) is one of the most endangered tortoises in the world. Fewer than 100 individuals remain in the wild, all occurring within Baly Bay National Park in northwestern Madagascar. The tortoise’s striking gold and black domed shell has made it an attractive pet in the international market, and continued poaching of these animals for the illegal pet trade will likely wipe out the last few ploughshare tortoises in a few years, conservationists say. Like the ploughshare, the Radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata), too has brilliant yellow lines radiating from its dark shell, making it a prized pet. The tortoise is found in Madagascar, and is under immediate threat of extinction due to habitat loss, poaching and the illegal pet trade.

“It is vital that highly threatened seized tortoises, especially Ploughshare Tortoises, are repatriated to Madagascar and reintroduced following the appropriate protocols to augment the wild population there,” Chris R. Shepherd, Regional Director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, said in a statement. “The thoughtless greed of those buying these animals is driving Ploughshare Tortoises to extinction, and we encourage the authorities to go after not just the traffickers but also those buying them.”

Between 2000 and 2015, over 300,000 tortoises and freshwater turtles have been confiscated, according to John E. Scanlon, CITES Secretary-General.

“Many seizures of tortoises and freshwater turtles seem to involve small numbers of animals that are carried or kept as personal pets or souvenirs, but more significantly, a smaller number of seizures of large to very large shipments containing several hundred or thousands of live specimens, suggests the involvement of well-organized criminal networks,” Scanlon said at the meeting of the CITES Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles Task Force in April.

The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Mongabay, an environmental science and conservation news and information site.

TNL Editor: Edward White


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