Published by The Economist on June 20, 2013. To read the original article, click here. DEMAND for wildlife parts is pushing many species to the brink of extinction. In China, where a rising middle class flaunts wealth by displaying ivory at home, traders call elephant tusks "white gold". But elephants, tigers, rhinos and other "charismatic megafauna" are not the only animals in trouble.
On March 15th, days after conservationists discussed clamping down on wildlife smuggling at a recent CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) conference in Thailand, Thai authorities seized over 300 live tortoises at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport. They arrested a Thai man and Malagasy woman who attempted to claim a suitcase from Madagascar. In it, authorities discovered 54 ploughshare and 21 radiated tortoises (both species are "critically endangered" under CITES). The same day, CITES authorities found another batch of tortoises in an unclaimed suitcase at the airport’s carousel.
In discovering 54 ploughshares, mainly authorities made the largest recorded seizure of a rapidly declining species. Experts estimate that as few as adult 400 individuals remain in the wild. Eric Goode, who heads the Turtle Conservancy, says the turtles do not appear to have been bred in captivity. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, in the first three months of 2013 authorities in Madagascar and Thailand confiscated more than 1,000 ploughshare and radiated tortoises.
In Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market (and other markets across South East Asia, both offline and online), vendors sell exotic critters as pets. Some dealers openly advertise that the specimens had been smuggled into the country. Other buyers are unaware that their new mascots were illegally removed from the wild. TRAFFIC, an advocacy group, warns that sellers sometimes misrepresent an animal’s origin, for instance by lying to customers that the animals were legally bred in captivity. To avoid unwittingly supporting criminal activity, TRAFFIC recommends that buyers relay concerns to relevant government agencies.
Just as prosperity in China increases demand for ivory, rising wealth in South-East Asia drives demand for pet tortoises, which are cultivated for their rarity and appearance. Like ivory, they are considered status symbols. According to the Turtle Conservancy and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, another campaigning outfit, the recent surge in the Malagasy tortoise trade stems from poachers' increased connectivity: mobile phones and the internet put dealers in touch with people residing in the ploughshares’ remote habitat. Poaching also tends to spike during times of political instability—true of Madagascar ever since a coup in 2009. Another factor is the dwindling adherence to fady, a Malagasy tradition of taboos which proscribe harming tortoises, explains Andrew Terry, of Durrell.
Concerned about the uptick in seizures of tortoises Durrell, the Turtle Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and other NGOs active on the island asked the Malagasy government to ramp up enforcement of existing protections. Shortly thereafter, Durrell and the Turtle Conservancy travelled to Bangkok to help Thai authorities care for the tortoises seized in March.
The 28 remaining ploughshares currently reside in a conservatory run by the Thai government. Although capable of maintaining exotic animals, the facility was created to house species indigenous to Thailand. Its chelonian residents therfore depend on regular visits from a veterinarian employed by Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
Last month, after checking on the tortoises, representatives of Durrell and the Turtle Conservancy met with the deputy director of Thailand’s department of wildlife and plants to discuss conditions by which the tortoises may return to Madagascar. All relevant parties, including the Thai and Malagasy governments, would like to see the animals returned home. Yet that may take some time as they may need to be presented in court as evidence. In the meantime, the Turtle Conservancy wants to help erect a semi-permanent home for the tortoises—with a trained resident vet.