Seeing Stars

Scientists discover an expansive network of tortoise poachers in Asia.

Photo: World Animal ProtectionIndian star tortoises have a distinctive radiating pattern on their shells, one of their desirable features

Sweaters shrink, jewelry tarnishes, and bacon-of-the-month-club subscriptions expire. But this holiday season, what if you could give a gift with a life expectancy of 80 years or more? The hottest gift of 2015 isn’t a Furby or Tickle Me Elmo—it’s the Indian star tortoise, a nearly one-foot-long, slow-moving, disease-prone reptile that will provide years of high-maintenance anticlimax!

I wish I were kidding.

According to a paper published in the November issue of Nature Conservation, each year poachers pluck around 55,000 of these tortoises from the thorn scrub forests and grasslands of India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka and smuggle them into Thailand and China. (That’s 10 times more Indian star tortoises than there are visible stars in the night sky, FYI.)

Indian star tortoises aren’t classified as endangered, but they could be headed that way. The brilliant star-shaped patterns that adorn their scutes (the plates on their shells) make the animals popular pets. So popular, scientists are becoming increasingly concerned that the wildlife trade is depleting wild populations faster than the tortoises can reproduce.

Photo: World Animal ProtectionA tortoise is decorated with vermilion

To stem the loss, Indian authorities have made it illegal to possess or export any animals caught in the wild, but they’ve done little to enforce those protections. In the country’s poor, rural areas, people rely on the tortoises as a ready (and easy to catch) source of protein. Elsewhere, Indians celebrate the reptiles as the second incarnation of Vishnu, a Hindu god. Thought to be good luck, these spirit turtles are decorated with vermilion and kept as pets at home or in temples, where they are often not adequately cared for. (Even in temples, the tortoises are at risk for malnutrition, illness, and neglect.)

The biggest threat to Indian star tortoises, however, is far and away the illegal international trade, says Neil D’Cruze, head of wildlife research and policy at World Animal Protection and lead author of the new paper.

D’Cruze says that due to a loophole that allows trade in “captive bred” animals, many consumers believe they’re buying a legitimate, sustainably raised tortoise. All a seller has to do is claim the reptile hatched in captivity and, voilà, a poached tortoise becomes a legal one. Furthermore, buying the animal isn’t difficult. The tortoises are sold in the same pet stores that sell birds, dogs, cats, and guinea pigs.

“At the moment, organized criminal groups are taking advantage of people’s desire to own exotic pets,” D’Cruze says. He and his team traveled to India in 2013 to conduct a 17-month investigation into the illegal tortoise trade. They found that the number of turtles leaving the country greatly exceeded previous estimates of 10,000 to 20,000 animals.

By road, rail, air, and sea, D’Cruze and his coauthors followed the path of tens of thousands of Indian star tortoises poached from just a single “trade hub” in India over the course of their study. Dealers hire locals to go out into the bush and nab tortoises, usually as the animals emerge en masse following seasonal monsoons. 

Photo: World Animal ProtectionYoung star tortoises are packaged in bags to be smuggled out of India

The researchers learned that the animals then pass through shady networks of middlemen, sometimes being re-routed through intermediary countries such as Kazakhstan, Lebanon, and Kyrgyzstan before making their way to the exotic pet markets of Southeast Asia. Previous research found the tortoises pop up illegally in European and American markets as well.

The first step to protecting the Indian star tortoise is updating its conservation status from “of least concern” to “vulnerable,” something D’Cruze says could happen as soon as next month. Making sure the reptiles never wind up at the bottom of a burlap sack in the first place, however, will require authorities from India and elsewhere to enforce the wildlife laws already on the books. Also on the hook are consumer: So long as people in Asia, Europe, and North America want exotic pets, the environment will continue to cough them up.

Which brings us back to what your sister-in-law may find under her Christmas tree this year. The possibilities are as endless as they are ethically dubious. You can purchase a spider tortoise ($500) or a flat-tailed tortoise ($1,200), both of which are native to Madagascar, and both of which are critically endangered. Wait, your sis-in-law is picky and prefers South American fauna? How about a Galapagos tortoise? It could be hers for a cool $5,000.

As for the Indian star tortoise, it’ll cost half a G to make your dreams of owning a pet with a metabolism only slightly more active than a rock come true. I spoke with one U.S.-based reptile seller by email who assured me his Indian star tortoises come from his own backyard, where he breeds them personally. Hold your horses, though: He doesn’t expect any more hatchlings until next summer. And there’s a waiting list.

But if you’re lucky, by next December he’ll ship an Indian star tortoise hatchling right to your doorstep, just like a bath mat bought on Amazon. 

World Animal ProtectionPhoto: World Animal ProtectionCute, but ethically dubious (not to mention dull)

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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