New Delhi: Booming illegal trade of the Indian star tortoise is threatening the survival of the species, which attracts big demand in the international market for being sold as exotic pets, a new study has warned.
In a first such study to examine this trade in India for over 15 years, researchers from World Animal Protection (WAP) have established that more than 55,000 tortoises are being poached from just one site in south-east India each year alone.
WAP discovered evidence of a thriving international criminal operation, with tortoises smuggled in boxes hidden under food items such as vegetables or fish.
It said that many do not survive the long and illegal journey and those who do survive suffer in confined spaces and die prematurely from malnutrition, suffocation or the overwhelming stress of confinement.
The study in the scientific journal 'Nature Conservation' describes Thailand, one of the primary destinations for the smuggled animals, as a key hub of illegal trade activity.
"There are also legitimate concerns that poachers have found a legal loophole in facilitating illegal poaching from the wild. For instance, it's illegal in India to possess and commercially trade star tortoises but not in Thailand which has made them the most frequently seized tortoise recorded by Thai authorities between 2008 and 2013," it said in a statement.
"We were shocked at the sheer scale of the illegal trade in tortoises and the cruelty inflicted upon them. Over 15 years ago wildlife experts warned that the domestic trade in Indian star tortoises needed to be contained before it could become established as an organised international criminal operation.
"Unfortunately it seems that our worst nightmare has come true - sophisticated criminal gangs are exploiting both impoverished rural communities and urban consumers alike. Neither group is fully aware how their actions are threatening the welfare and conservation of these tortoises," said Neil D'Cruze, Head of Wildlife Research at WAP.
The Indian star tortoise is famed for its 'star-like' radiating patterns of its shell that serves as camouflage in the wild but it is the same pattern that also makes it a popular pet to collectors around the world.
Despite being protected in India since the 1970, legal loopholes in other Asian countries such as Thailand and China appear to undermine India's enforcement efforts. They are smuggled out of the country in confined spaces, it's clear there is little or no concern about the welfare of these reptiles.
"WAP is concerned about the suffering that these tortoises endure. We are dealing with an organised international criminal operation which requires an equally organised international approach to combat it," said Gajender Sharma, India Director at WAP.
To help save Indian star tortoises from extinction and close the loophole, the wildlife experts are calling for better cooperation between national enforcement agencies and for Thailand to prohibit private ownership by extending its domestic legislation to also cover non-native species.