Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geogaraphic Photo Ark
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More than a thousand Indian star tortoises, a species with strict trade limitations under international law, were seized during a recent sting operation.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geogaraphic Photo Ark

Shocking report details massive illegal turtle trade network

A series of recent sting operations has led to dozens of arrests, thousands of reptiles seized

In a posh hotel room in Kuala Lumpur, a 35-year-old man wearing a dark button-down shirt smiled. He had two suitcases crammed with 55 live turtles, and he was hoping to make a sale.

He watched as his customer, a man wearing shorts and sneakers, carefully examined the reptiles crawling across the hotel rug.

Bakrudin Ali Ahamed Habeeb, had posted on Facebook some seven months earlier that he had reptiles to sell, triggering a flurry of text messages and price negotiations. Now, Habeeb just needed to prove that his animals were in good health so he could pass them off into the exotic pet trade.

It was May 2017, and he was anticipating a big payday.

When his visitor left the room, ostensibly to get a colleague, Habeeb didn’t even look up. But minutes later, agents from Malaysia’s department of wildlife and parks flooded his room. The would-be buyer, as it turned out, was an undercover agent with the Wildlife Justice Commission, a Hague-based nonprofit that works to expose the criminal networks behind the illegal wildlife trade. Local law enforcement officers had been waiting in the next room to nab Habeeb as he made an illegal sale of black spotted turtles, which are found in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh and are barred from international trade because of the species’ protected designation under international law.

Based on the evidence provided by the Wildlife Justice Commission and described in a report published December 6, Habeeb—an Indian national who had long been smuggling reptiles from India to Malaysia—was sentenced to 24 months in prison. He was one of 30 individuals arrested during a two-year investigation by the commission into reptile smuggling.

The investigation led to the seizure of more than 6,000 turtles and tortoises—many of them endangered species. Thirty people were arrested for smuggling these reptiles through Malaysia, India, or Bangladesh. Five of those individuals, all in Malaysia, have already been convicted and are serving prison sentences.

In the most extreme case, “over a thousand Indian star tortoises were seized in one sting operation in Kuala Lumpur, and two people were arrested,” says Sarah Stoner, senior investigations manager at the Wildlife Justice Commission and lead author of the report. One of those men is now serving 24 months in prison. The other failed to show up in court, and there’s an outstanding warrant for his arrest.

The commission’s investigations focused primarily on Southeast Asia, the pet trade destination for many of these turtles and tortoises, but it also encompassed areas as far-flung as Cameroon and the Netherlands. Collectively, according to the commission, the turtles offered to the agents were worth $3 million wholesale and much more on the retail market.

WHERE TRAFFICKING

OCCURS

For two years, the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) sent investigators undercover to gather information about the illegal turtle and tortoise trade. By posing as buyers, they gained access to trafficking networks. WJC’s findings helped local law enforcement officials seize thousands of animals and arrest traffickers.

Animals offered to WJC investigators

More

than

5,000

Less

than

100

1,000–

5,000

100–

999

NETHERLANDS

ASIA

INDIA

PAKISTAN

EUROPE

BANGLADESH

Hong Kong

AFRICA

MALAYSIA

CAMEROON

THAILAND

INDONESIA

AUSTRALIA

MADAGASCAR

SOREN WALLJASPER, NG STAFF

SOURCE: WILDLIFE JUSTICE COMMISSION

WHERE TRAFFICKING OCCuRS

For two years, the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) sent investigators undercover to gather information about the illegal turtle and tortoise trade. By posing as buyers, they gained access to trafficking networks. WJC’s findings helped local law enforcement officials seize thousands of animals and arrest traffickers.

Airport with one of

the highest number

of animals seized

100 animals offered

to WJC investigators

ASIA

NETHERLANDS

INDIA

EUROPE

PAKISTAN

BANGLADESH

PACIFIC

OCEAN

Dhaka

Hong Kong

Mumbai

AFRICA

THAILAND

MALAYSIA

Bangkok

Chennai

CAMEROON

Colombo

Kuala Lumpur

Jakarta

INDIAN

OCEAN

INDONESIA

Antananarivo

MADAGASCAR

AUSTRALIA

SOREN WALLJASPER, NG STAFF

SOURCE: WILDLIFE JUSTICE COMMISSION

Dozens of investigators, analysts, and undercover workers found that in most cases the turtles and tortoises were being smuggled from India, Pakistan, and Madagascar to buyers in mainland China and Hong Kong. Top species offered included ones that are considered vulnerable because of their dwindling numbers, such as the Indian star tortoise and the black spotted turtle. Investigators were also offered more than 1,500 radiated tortoises—a species native to Madagascar that’s considered critically endangered and is prohibited from any commercial trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the agreement that regulates the wildlife trade. (Read about the 10,000 radiated tortoises found in a house in Madagascar in April.)

The report also revealed details about the scale and coordination of the corruption that greases these trades. Airports the animals were most often trafficked through were pinpointed, as were local sources of some of the reptiles. To do that work, the group used the plans smugglers shared with the commission’s “buyers”—describing how products would be moved from one area to another—and compared them against intelligence on meager arrest records at those transit points, essentially corroborating that someone was likely being paid to look the other way.

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Radiated tortoises—popular as pets in Hong Kong, China and elsewhere—are critically endangered and barred from international trade.

“People accept that wildlife crime happens because of corruption,” says Sarah Stoner, “but we want to put this information out there so people with levels of influence can tackle it at a higher level.”

HOW CORRUPTION

ENABLES TRAFFICKING

The illegal wildlife trade could not exist without corruption. The WJC investigation describes corrupt officials at all levels of the trafficking process, including within some organizations tasked with protecting wildlife. Many of the corrupt officials work at transportation hubs, giving cover to smugglers.

N.

AMER.

ASIA

MAP AREA

AFRICA

S.

AMER.

Rotated

below

Clear smuggling route

N

Risky smuggling route

Instance of

coruption

recorded

by WJC

Many of the smuggled animals originate in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

INDIA

Colombo

Chennai

SRI

LANKA

Bay of

Bengal

Kolkata

BANGL.

Dhaka

MYANMAR

(BURMA)

Bangkok

THAILAND

CAMBODIA

Phnom Penh

Kuala

Lumpur

VIETNAM

MALAYSIA

South

China Sea

Macau

Hong Kong

Kuala Lumpur was identified as the port offering the easiest access for traffickers, with numerous corrupt officials working there.

Hong Kong and China are the main destinations for turtles and tortoises, popular as pets.

SOREN WALLJASPER; NG STAFF

SOURCE: WILDLIFE JUSTICE COMMISSION

HOW CORRUPTION

ENABLES TRAFFICKING

The illegal wildlife trade could

not exist without corruption.

The WJC investigation

describes corrupt officials

at all levels of the traffick-

ing process, including within

some organizations tasked

with protecting wildlife.

Many of the corrupt officials

work at transportation hubs,

giving cover to smugglers.

CHINA

Hong Kong and China are the main destinations for turtles and tortoises, popular as pets.

BHUTAN

INDIA

Many of the smuggled animals originate in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Dhaka

Hong Kong

Kolkata

Macau

MYANMAR

(BURMA)

BANGL.

South

China

Sea

THAILAND

Chennai

VIETNAM

Bangkok

Clear smuggling route

Bay of

Bengal

CAMBODIA

Phnom Penh

Risky smuggling route

SRI

LANKA

Colombo

Instance of corruption

recorded by WJC

MALAYSIA

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur was identified as the port offering the easiest access for traffickers, with numerous corrupt officials working there.

INDONESIA

SOREN WALLJASPER, NG STAFF

SOURCE: WILDLIFE JUSTICE COMMISSION