Smuggling of Indian Star Tortoises

The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and the Forest Protection Squad in Tamil Nadu have arrested a person for keeping 2515 rare Indian Star tortoises for smuggling purposes.

The Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans) is a threatened species of tortoise found in dry areas and scrub forest in India and Sri Lanka. This species is quite popular in the exotic pet trade, which is the main reason it is endangered.

Seized tortoises were sent back to Arignar Anna Zoological Park in Chennai for further rehabilitation. The total value of the animals seized was approximately Rs. 25 lakhs.

The Indian Star Tortoise is protected by Article IV of the Wildlife Protection Act and smuggling of this species is linked to illicit pet trade. Star tortoises don’t get much protection domestically. Anyone caught trading them can get away by paying a fine of Rs 25,000.

Elevating the species to Schedule I would act as a deterrent, since the punishment could be up to six years in prison. In addition, a Schedule I listing would prioritise protection.

The under-staffed and overworked Wildlife Crime Control Bureau focuses on criminals trading in Schedule I species instead of busting its guts going after criminals who pay and walk.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) regulates trade in wild species between countries. The Indian star tortoise is listed under Appendix II, which allows trade as long as the wild populations aren’t affected. Since there are no studies of the species, we have no idea how badly affected they are by this prolonged trade in the species.

There are three populations of Indian star tortoises. The northwest population is found in Gujarat and Rajasthan in India, and in a tiny area in south-eastern Pakistan. These tortoises grow large and bumpy, and have many yellow lines on their shells. As they age, the colours become duller.

Star tortoises found in Odisha and all the four southern states are smaller with smoother shells and richer colours. The ones found in northern and eastern Sri Lanka look like they are hybrids of the two Indian populations. They grow large and bumpy like the northwest Indian ones and are colourful like the south Indian ones.

In parts of Sri Lanka, the species is so common that it is considered a pest in vegetable plots. Vegetable farmers dig trenches around their fields of beans and tomatoes to trap the tortoises.

The Indian Star Tortoise was last formally assessed in 2000 and is officially considered as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List as it was not thought to be threatened with extinction in any of its range countries (which include India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka).