Pet trade hitting Asian tortoises

Consumer demand in China and Thailand for reptile revered as a Hindu god is creating a welfare catastrophe and raising conservation concerns.

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Crammed into containers and transported in garbage trucks, Indian star tortoises are being killed in their thousands because of the demands of the international pet trade.

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Investigators have found alarming levels of trade in the species from India to other parts of Asia, especially Thailand and China – they say at least 55,000 individuals were collected from the wild in one area in just 12 months.

As well as the impact this may have on its status in the wild, there are also significant welfare considerations, says World Animal Protection which funded the research.

“Anecdotally, we have been told that mortality can be as high as 1 in 3,” said a spokesperson, “though agencies don’t record or retain the records that would provide accurate information.”

Because of the way they are transported, tortoises are killed from lack of oxygen, dehydration and broken shells. “These stolen animals endure horrific conditions,” the spokesperson said.

Exactly what impact this is having on the species in the wild is unclear, though the researchers say its conservation status on the IUCN Red List requires a thorough reassessment.

It is also not known whether any of those tortoises illegally taken in India are being smuggled into Europe. Indian star tortoises are sold legally at pet fairs within the EU because regulated trade is permitted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

“However, the controls are not really in place to prevent EU breeders from potentially getting wild-caught tortoises outside of the EU and bringing them into the captive population,” said World Animal Protection.

Indian star tortoises are found in scrub forests and grasslands in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and are famed for the star-like radiating patterns of yellow and black on their shells.

They have been traditionally kept as pets in India for many centuries because they are thought to bring good luck, and they are also believed to represent a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.

Read the research article in Nature Conservation

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