The tortoises exploring their new surroundings at the quarantine unit in Karnataka

Star-studded homecoming

A long-awaited homecoming for 51 repatriated Indian star tortoises! Follow the struggles of a team of wildlife biologists, working in tandem with the Indian and Singaporean governmental agencies to bring the small reptiles back to their native habitat.

With over 25,000 being seized at Indian airports nearly every year and an unimaginable number actually making it out of the country and into the illegal pet trade, it comes as no surprise that the Indian Star Tortoise(Geocheloneelegans) is one of the most trafficked tortoise species in the world. This small reptile has a scaly, almost spiny body, protected by a distinctively patterned hard curved shell like a bumpy star-studded helmet. Combined with its calm, unthreatening demeanour and slow movements, these attributes make it dangerously apt for the exotic pet trade, and easy to poach and smuggle across international borders.

As per CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), the authority that regulates the international trade in exotic species, the star tortoise is listed under Appendix II, and comes under controlled trader regulations and can legally be sold into the pet trade so long as wild populations of the species remain unthreatened. This shocking declaration is rendered further problematic when factoring in that there are no comprehensive and reliable scientific studies into wild populations of star tortoises in terms of their survival and abundance, and the devastating effect such large-scale poaching must have on their numbers – even as the species’ decline inches it slowly from Vulnerable to Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The Star Tortoises enjoying a healthy meal at the ACRES rescue center in Singapore

The Star Tortoises enjoying a healthy meal at the ACRES rescue centre in Singapore

Despite their ominous threatened status, the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 places the Indian star tortoises in Schedule IV, according to them little protection and callously allowing poachers that are caught to bail out with shockingly minimal fines.

Wasim Akram-Wildlife SOS Manager Special Projects with the Indian Star Tortoises at ACRES, Singapore

Wasim Akram-Wildlife SOS Manager Special Projects with the Indian Star Tortoises at ACRES, Singapore

Poaching occurs most commonly in the monsoon months, and tortoises are then concealed and smuggled over long distances from their home range to a city with an airport or port from which they can be trafficked across porous borders. So long as temperatures remain cool, these cold-blooded reptiles show little movement – making it difficult to detect. The tortoises end up in Southeast Asian markets as exotic pets in people’s homes, as symbols of good luck and spiritual upliftment, as food delicacy in restaurants and even their body parts are put to use in traditional medicine. At least those that do survive the journey – many die in the cramped, traumatic conditions of being smuggled as contraband, the dehydration, malnutrition, suffocation and stress proving too much for them. Little is known about how to best care for and feed Indian star tortoises, particularly about their diet. Owners often feed them supermarket-bought vegetables, which do not come with the calcium and vitamins required to keep their shells healthy leading to mortalities in captivity. Star tortoises in captivity are known to demonstrate extreme pyramiding leading to structural deformities reducing the ability of a male tortoise to mount the female thereby hindering reproduction.

Two years ago, enforcement agencies in Singapore seized a consignment of live Indian Star Tortoises. As an alien species in the island nation, release in Singapore was out of the question and they were transferred to a Singapore based rescue facility – Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES). Investigation reports strongly indicate Karnataka as their origin. In 2017, a spot inspection of the star tortoises was conducted by the Chief Wildlife Warden of Karnataka, Government of Karnataka and Mr Kartick Satyanarayan, Co-Founder and CEO of Wildlife SOS, a wildlife conservation charity based in India. While the paperwork and permits were being put together, the tortoises continued to be cared for at the ACRES facility in Singapore, recovering from their traumatic ordeal by providing them intensive veterinary care and healthy environmental conditions to keep them fit for their journey home.

Working closely with the Karnataka Forest Department, the Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Agriculture, the CITES India Management Authority – Wildlife Crime Control Bureau in India, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore and regional customs and animal quarantine agencies, Wildlife SOS and ACRES facilitated procurement of all the necessary paperwork and clearances required to enable a unique repatriation mission of bringing 51 Indian Star Tortoises back home to their natural habitat in Karnataka.

Rattle, one of the Indian Star Tortoises to be repatriated to India

Rattle, one of the Indian Star Tortoises to be repatriated to India

Singapore Airlines contributed to the cause of wildlife conservation by transporting the tortoises for free. The microchipped tortoises were transported in specially designed crates with ventilation holes for the long plane journey. The tortoises were flown back into India, escorted by a team from Wildlife SOS and ACRES.

The tortoises will be quarantined for a period of three months followed by a soft release in a protected reserve after a team of Wildlife SOS biologists tag them with radio transmitters to study their survival and movement ecology. Intensive monitoring measures will be put in place to track these animals upon reintroduction in the wild to evaluate the success of this unique project.

This landmark project not only helps augment the endangered populations in India but also demonstrates the commitment from the governments of India and Singapore and their zero tolerance to illegal wildlife trade.


Cover Photo: The tortoises exploring their new surroundings at the quarantine unit in Karnataka

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About the Author /

Wasim Akram is working with Wildlife SOS as the head of the Special Projects division and is involved in ex-situ conservation project management, wildlife translocation, anti poaching unit. He also heads the NGO's 24 hr rapid response unit in New Delhi.

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