When customs officials peered into four suitcases that had been abandoned in the arrivals area of a Manila airport, they made a shocking discovery: The luggage was packed with more than 1,529 turtles and tortoises, including a number of protected species, according to the Guardian’s Hannah Ellis-Petersen. The animals had been bound with duct tape and shoved between clothes—but they were still alive.
The Bureau of Customs said in a Facebook post that the luggage had been brought to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport by a Filipino passenger arriving from Hong Kong. Two of the species found in the suitcases—the star tortoise and the African spurred tortoise—are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Another, the red-eared slider turtle, is commonly kept as a pet, according to CNN’s Rob Picheta. The conservation status of the fourth species named by customs officials, the red-footed tortoise, has not been evaluated.
Turtles and tortoises have been a major target of the illegal wildlife trade. The animals’ meat and body parts are consumed as delicacies and as medicine in parts of Asia, and they are also prized as exotic pets. Last year, a Wildlife Justice Commission report revealed that turtles and tortoises were being trafficked throughout South and Southeastern Asia, a multi-million dollar trade facilitated by “organized corruption of officials at airports and transport hubs.” Over the course of a two-year operation, investigators were offered more than 20,000 freshwater turtles and tortoises, a number of which were critically endangered.
Other recent seizures have highlighted the scope of the problem. In 2018, for instance, authorities in Madagascar discovered 10,000 radiated tortoises, a critically endangered species coveted for its intricately patterned shell, crammed into a single home. It is believed that the animals were due to be smuggled out of Madagascar, which is the only place where they are found.
The estimated value of the turtles discovered at the Ninoy Aquino airport is 4.5 million pesos, or around $87,000. It isn’t clear why the luggage containing the animals was abandoned, but customs officials posit that the passenger “may have been informed of the vigilance of Bureau of Customs against illegal wildlife trade and its penalties.” In the Philippines, illegal animal trading is punishable by up to two years in prison and fines of up to 200,000 pesos, or nearly $4,000. But the threat of legal repercussions has certainly not stopped smugglers from moving wildlife through the country. The Bureau of Customs said that in 2018, it seized 560 different species, including 254 pieces of coral, 250 geckos, and a number of other reptiles. In the first months of 2019, officials have intercepted the smuggling of 63 iguanas, chameleons and bearded dragons that were being transported through airline baggage and shipments.
The recently discovered turtles, the bureau noted in its Facebook post, have now been transferred to a wildlife traffic “monitoring unit.”