After a large seizure of juvenile Galápagos tortoises, it’s clear the long-time trade of the coveted animal continues and may be linked to ever-more sophisticated animal trafficking mafias.
The seizure came in late March, during a routine inspection, when workers at Galápagos Ecological Airport on the island of Baltra discovered some 185 tortoises wrapped in plastic and concealed inside a suitcase, according to a March 28 news release by airport officials.
Ten of the tortoises -- which were en route to Ecuador’s mainland city of Guayaquil -- died before they were discovered.
The seized tortoises were estimated to have been less than three months old. Officials revealed that their young age had made it difficult to know from which part of the protected Galápagos Archipelago the tortoises had been poached.
Ecuador's Attorney General’s Office later said it had filed charges against a police officer for crimes against flora and fauna after he was arrested in connection with the failed smuggling attempt.
The suspect could face up to three years in prison if found guilty.
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The seizure was notable, mostly because of the large number of tortoises discovered. It indicates the animals were not simply meant for a handful of exotic animal collectors. It's more likely that they were headed to a dedicated animal trafficker who deals with black-market buyers.
Galápagos giant tortoises are highly coveted in black markets for exotic reptiles in Asia, Europe and the United States. They are the world's largest species of tortoise, with some adults exceeding 5 feet in length and weighing up to 550 pounds. The tortoises, which routinely live to be more than 100 years old and are native to the archipelago, continue to face threats not only from poachers but also nonnative species, such as goats and cattle, that consume their food supply. Several subspecies are listed as endangered.
Smugglers typically move the tortoises from the Galápagos Islands to Ecuador's mainland, or to neighboring countries, including Peru.
They are then smuggled to exotic animal dealers or collectors in Europe, Asia and the United States. The tortoises can sell for $5,000 per head as hatchlings. Their value rises as they grow, with collectors paying as much as $60,000 for an adult.
Following the recent seizure, Jorge Rosillo, manager of Galápagos Ecological Airport, said that tortoises native to the protected archipelago are also highly sought after in Asia.
Authorities have previously connected the black market trade in tortoises to transnational criminal networks. Following a 2017 seizure of close to 30 Galápagos tortoises in Peru, police linked the activity to an international mafia specializing in trafficking wildlife to Europe.
The size of this seizure, however, makes that mafia seem small in comparison.