China jails 7 people, including airport employee, for smuggling rare tortoises

China jails 7 people, including airport employee, for smuggling rare tortoises
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On July 26, a Chinese court sentenced seven people to prison terms for smuggling more than 300 rare radiated tortoises. These critically endangered tortoises, popular as pets, were being smuggled from Madagascar into China to be bred for the illegal pet trade.

“This sentencing sends a strong message to illegal wildlife dealers that the punishment for these activities will fit the severity of the crime,” Brian D. Horne, Coordinator of Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), said in a statement. “WCS is glad to have provided chelonian expertise for the prosecution.”  

Members of the smuggling ring reportedly transported the illegally caught tortoises onboard a commercial flight. They would wrap the animals in tin foil to prevent X-ray detection at the airport, according to the statement by WCS.

Once the tortoises arrived in China, the defendants would hand the animals over to an airport employee who worked at the Guangzhou Baiyun Airport. The employee would then help the defendants get the tortoises out without a customs inspection.

The animals were housed in an apartment in Guangzhou that served both as a temporary shelter and reproduction facility before being traded through online forums and messaging groups, the statement said.

The smuggling racket was finally busted on 3 February 2015 when Chinese authorities caught the airport employee with 316 tortoises stuffed inside two knapsacks. The Chinese police subsequently arrested all members of the smuggling ring, including buyers from Beijing and Guangxi, according to the statement. They also rescued 130 additional tortoises.

The Guangzhou Intermediate Court sentenced the ring leader to 11 years in prison and   $75,103 in fine. The airport employee was handed a 5-year prison term and $7,510 fine. The other five defendants were sentenced to jail terms of between two to seven years. Their illegal profits were also reportedly confiscated.

The radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) is native to Madagascar, and is protected under Malagasy law. The tortoise is also listed in the Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which prohibits commercial trade of wild-caught individuals of this species. However, tortoise numbers are declining rapidly due to habitat loss, poaching as well as the international pet trade.

“Through the arrest and sentencing of these smugglers, many radiated tortoises were saved—both directly through the confiscation of the animals, and by the message sent by the sentencing,” Aili Kang, Executive Director of WCS’s Asia Program, said in the statement. “These deterrents are necessary if we are going to protect the natural heritage of our global communities.”