Stuffed into suitcases, bundled into shopping bags and trapped in cool boxes: every year, thousands of Indian star tortoises are forced to endure horrific conditions as they are trafficked from their native India and Sri Lanka. The majority are destined for life as exotic pets in places as far afield as Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States.

Regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful tortoises, Indian star tortoises are so named due to the yellow and black star-shaped patterns on their shells. They are found only in parts of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, where they inhabit dry grasslands and scrub.

They are attractive, easy to care for and have a long lifespan, Jose Louies, joint director of the wildlife conservation charity Wildlife Trust of India, told The Third Pole. There is a belief in parts of Southeast Asia that tortoises bring luck, he added.

Source: IUCN. Graphic: The Third Pole

It is these qualities that make the Indian star tortoise sought after as a pet. Against a backdrop of habitat loss and degradation, collection for the international pet trade has reached such a scale that the species’ survival in the wild is under threat.

Research in 2016 found that the Indian star tortoise is seized from illegal trade more than any other tortoise species. These threats have led the International Union for Conservation of Nature to categorise the Indian star tortoise as “vulnerable” – one step away from endangered – on its Red List of Threatened Species.

In 2019, international commercial trade in Indian star tortoises was banned when the species was added to Appendix I of the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, following advocacy efforts from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Senegal.

The Indian star tortoise had previously been on Appendix II, meaning regulated trade was allowed with export permits. But according to the convention’s trade database, no permits for the commercial export of Indian star tortoises collected from the wild had been issued by India, Sri Lanka or Pakistan since 1999. Yet star tortoises continued to be traded illegally in their thousands. In 2017 alone, 6,040 Indian star tortoises were seized in 11 incidents across India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

The successful proposal to uplist the species to Appendix I highlighted a significant population decline and a sharp increase in illegal trade. In one example, over 55,000 star tortoises are reported to have been illegally collected from a single area in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh during 2014.

An Appendix I listing can lead to stronger action to control commercial trade in the species, explained Kanitha Krishnasamy, director for conservation NGO TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, in an email to The Third Pole.

“In most countries, targeting crimes involving Appendix I species is prioritised, and penalties are commensurately higher, in the hopes of creating a deterrent effect. Unfortunately, this has not quite happened in most consumer states [of the Indian star tortoise], resulting in India’s population of the species continuing to face immense pressure,” said Krishnasamy.

Trade continues

In India, data collated by the non-profit the Wildlife Protection Society of India and shared with The Third Pole shows that authorities seized 3,500 star tortoises in 24 incidents across 2020 and 2021 – after the ban came into effect. In 2022 so far, there have been two reported seizures in the country, involving a total of 1,498 star tortoises. Given that only a small proportion of smuggling attempts are likely intercepted by authorities, the true number of tortoises in ongoing illegal trade is likely far higher.

Their journey usually begins, according to Louies who has worked undercover identifying star tortoise trade routes, with a local person spotting the tortoise in the wild and passing it on to a collector in exchange for a small finder’s fee. It is then given to an exporter who packs numerous tortoises together, hiding them in vegetable cartons, suitcases, or cargo. Tape is wrapped around the star tortoises’ legs to limit movement before they are flown out of the country, most often to a destination in Southeast Asia.

Airport staff, trained to look for narcotics or metal objects rather than reptiles, tend to miss the tortoises, Louies explained.

Once landed, traders might sell them locally. Alternatively, they might be sent on to another country further afield for higher prices. New owners of star tortoises on Facebook groups list locations from Glenrothes in Scotland to Davao City in the Philippines. “Hong Kong and Thailand act as gateways,” said Neil D’Cruze, head of animal welfare and research at the NGO World Animal Protection, which has conducted research on the Indian star tortoise trade.

Illustration: Kabini Amin/ The Third Pole

But many do not make it to their final destination. “When taped up or packed too tightly, they cannot move their heads and their limbs,” D’Cruze said. “With the kind of distress, disease and respiratory problems [they experience], can come cracked shells and suffocation.”

The eventual owners will be likely unaware of their new pet’s backstory, Louies said. “It is like a camera or mobile phone,” he added. “You purchase but you do not worry about whether your iPhone is manufactured in a sweatshop in China or Vietnam or Bangladesh.”

Failing law enforcement

In India, where the star tortoise is protected under Schedule IV of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, anyone found in possession of the species could face criminal charges, with sentences of up to six months’ imprisonment. But in reality, the punishment is likely to be only a small fine and a shorter jail sentence, even for those who are known to be seasoned smugglers, Louies said.

One man in particular, he said, flew between Chennai and Bangkok with star tortoises in his possession over 34 times in two years before he was caught. While his case is still ongoing, Louies believes he is unlikely to receive a sentence longer than three to six months.

The lack of clear punishment for the illegal trade of the star tortoise means there is not enough of a deterrent for traders, according to Louies. “It boils down to intelligence-led investigations to crack down on criminal networks and enforcement of regulations and laws,” Krishnasamy said.

Another challenge is the fact that in many countries, legal protections are limited to native species. While the act of smuggling an Indian star tortoise into a country itself is illegal thanks to CITES, once a star tortoise has entered many countries – including Thailand and Indonesia – it is not protected. This means authorities may be unable to investigate and prosecute buying, selling and possession of the smuggled animals.

In Indonesia, loopholes mean “if you make it past customs you are basically home free and can sell them openly in the shops”, said Chris Shepherd, executive director at Monitor Conservation Research Society, a non-profit dedicated to preventing a decline in species impacted by wildlife trade through research.

Non-governmental organisations such as TRAFFIC have encouraged Thailand to expand its laws to cover non-native species. Campaigners have also urged the European Union to follow the example of the United States, where the Lacey Act makes it illegal to buy or sell any species that was collected in violation of laws in its native country.

Malaysia’s listing of the star tortoise as a protected species under its Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 has meant its removal from pet shops. Yet even when laws do exist to protect species like the star tortoise, Shepherd warned in many places they are “almost a bad joke”. He called for countries failing to enforce the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora to be penalised.

Trade sanctions are supposed to be enforced on countries if they do not fulfil their duties under the convention, but in practice these have been few and far between, said Alice Hughes, professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, focusing on Southeast Asian conservation science. “Even the tools it [the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] does have are not being used,” said Hughes.

Embedding heavy fines or year-long prison sentences into national frameworks alongside proper investigations into supply chains could help tackle persistent illegal trade in Indian star tortoises, said Louies.

Investigations that tackle players higher up the trade chain – rather than simply penalising often vulnerable (and replaceable) smaller players – have been repeatedly emphasised by wildlife trafficking experts as a key missing piece of the enforcement puzzle. But following the money to unearth such groups can be difficult, Louies said, as traders often negotiate in terms of product rather than any money being exchanged. “I send you star tortoises, you give me fish.”

Implementation issue

Calling the treaty “not fit for purpose”, specifically for reptiles, Hughes highlighted persistent issues in the implementation of CITES, including the fact that less than 8% of its records are free of discrepancies, which hinders its effectiveness.

For example, between 2000 and 2015, CITES data listed over 70,000 Indian star tortoises as being traded internationally. Jordan, Ukraine, Hong Kong and Slovenia were identified as the biggest exporters. The lack of reports listing imports into these countries – which have no wild star tortoises – raised questions as to how they could hold such high numbers, particularly given the species does not breed well in captivity.

“There are severe concerns that the star tortoises exported from Jordan, Ukraine, Hong Kong and Slovenia during that time were not bred legally in captivity,” D’Cruze said, adding that none appeared to have the proper CITES import records in place. “[This] raises important questions about the legality of their founding stock.”

Six years later, discrepancies continue to exist. CITES trade data shows that, in 2020, Sri Lanka, Germany and the United Kingdom reported the export of captive-bred Indian star tortoises, but no reports of imports were received, despite import permits being required for Appendix I species.

“Getting real numbers [of CITES-listed species traded internationally] can be hard, submissions may be late – if ever – and it is harder to cross-reference between countries,” Hughes said. “So if one country said it exported X units to another, you cannot check in a realistic timeframe how many were received. This makes tracking and monitoring trade harder.”

The CITES system also only offers protections to a small subset of species – particularly mammals – while neglecting reptiles and amphibians, Hughes added. CITES Appendix I lists 325 mammal species, compared with 98 reptiles.

Countries also have to prove that a species is threatened by trade in order to get it listed. This can be a slow process, whereas trade trends in the pet industry can lead swiftly to overharvesting from the wild. Hughes suggested CITES be overhauled to regulate trade in a species as default, rather than waiting for a country to determine that a species is threatened and advocate for its listing. “We should monitor what’s being traded by default and only trade species when we know it’s not harmful to ongoing population health,” Hughes said.

Illustration: Kabini Amin/ The Third Pole

There is an increasing debate in the wildlife conservation sector over the effectiveness of CITES, said D’Cruze, adding that there is room for improvement with any piece of legislation. But, “at the moment, CITES is the only legislative tool that deals with international wildlife trade and its impacts from a sustainability and conservation perspective on a global scale”. It needs to be supplemented with human behaviour change while the root causes of consumer demand are addressed, he added.

For the Indian star tortoise, this will mean reducing demand for the species as an exotic pet, including through educating potential consumers on the threats the pet trade poses to their wellbeing and overall survival.

“I think people would be really shocked if they saw the way that the animals are trapped and transported, [and] the mortality rates,” said D’Cruze. “I think it would really make them question, in many cases, their choice to have that particular animal as a pet.”

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.