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.
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.
“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.”