Fifty-four live ploughshare tortoises smuggled out of Madagascar have been seized by Thai authorities in Bangkok just a day after the global wildlife trade conference, CITES, closed its conference there.
Smuggled through Ivato Airport in Antananarivo in baggage registered to a 25-year old Malagasy woman, the tortoises were flown via Nairobi to Bangkok International Airport where the bag was to be left on the luggage carrousel and picked up by a local contact. It was at this point that the Royal Thai authorities swooped and arrested a 38-year old Thai man and the woman.
The world’s attention was on Thailand last week as the global wildlife trade convention, CITES, held its annual conference of parties in the capital, Bangkok. Thailand is under great pressure as it is seen as one of the hubs for the illegal movement of wildlife around the world. Thai authorities have struggled to curb the trade which is globally worth more now than the illegal drugs market. Smuggling wildlife is seen as highly lucrative with relatively low risks and penalties for those caught. Corruption also remains a constant pressure.
Several of Madagascar’s most threatened species are under intense pressure from the illegal wildlife trade and none more so than the ploughshare tortoise. Prized as a pet for its rarity and its golden domed shell, this stunning tortoise is restricted to one corner of Madagascar. There could be fewer than 400 adult tortoises left in the wild and so a shipment of 54 animals, even though they are mostly juveniles, represents a significant number.
Ploughshare tortoises, image courtesy of TRAFFIC International
Durrell has battled for the last 25 years to save this species from extinction. Working to protect its habitat, to support communities to become guardians of the tortoise and to set up a highly successful captive breeding programme in partnership with international partners – the project now faces its greatest challenge: to fight this illegal trade.
“We are very proud of the great strides that have been made over the years to ensure this species didn’t go extinct from threats to its habitat,” says Richard Lewis, Director of Durrell’s Madagascar Programme, “but the rise of the illegal trade and the smuggling of countless animals into the markets of South-East Asia and beyond now poses the single greatest risk to the species. It cannot sustain this pressure and so we have to find a way of reducing this threat.”
One of the positive outcomes of the CITES conference was the start of a dialogue between delegates from Madagascar and Thailand on the sharing of resources and intelligence to curb this trade and build capacity within law enforcement agencies. A strong collaborative relationship between the Thai and Malagasy authorities is an essential step forward in the fight against the illegal trade.
“Our first priority is to ensure the health and safety of these animals,” said Andrew Terry, Durrell’s Head of Field Programmes, “we will propose to send a team to Thailand to help review the health status of these animals and provide husbandry support to ensure their welfare. We hope that the animals can be repatriated to Madagascar as soon as possible where they can be integrated into the secure captive breeding programme that continues to ensure the future of the species.”
“More broadly we are working closely with the national authorities in Madagascar, to support efforts to stop the illegal trade in ploughshares and other highly threatened species as well as with international partners such as TRAFFIC, who are experts in wildlife trade issues.”