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International smuggling ring busted after airport employee caught with 316 tortoises in two bags

Smugglers were handing off tortoises in airport bathrooms

Julie Larsen Maher

Seven members of an international tortoise smuggling ring are going to jail after Chinese police caught one member in an airport with two sacks holding 316 tortoises. Ring members had been taking radiated turtles from their native Madagascar, wrapping them in tin foil to avoid X-ray detection, stuffing them on a flight, and flying them to China. The plan was to breed each new batch, and then sell the offspring for profit. It worked for a while, but apparently it’s not that easy hiding 316 shelled animals.

Radiated tortoises are beautiful, rare, and critically endangered animals. Unfortunately, they are also popular (and expensive) pets in China, which makes them attractive to smugglers. Having publicly come out as anti-tortoise, it’s beyond me why anyone would pay money for these animals — but even I disapprove of tortoises being cruelly wrenched from their homes and transported around covered in tinfoil like an old burrito.

According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, the smugglers had a full supply chain, from the people stealing tortoises in Madagascar to buyers lined up in cities like Guangxi and Beijing. Once the tortoises arrived in China, one smuggler would meet with another member — an airport employee — in a bathroom to hand off the illegal cargo. The employee, in an almost hilarious abuse of power, used his credentials to sneak bags full of turtles past customs and to an apartment in Guangzhou.

The jig was up when the employee got caught in February of last year. The airport employee cooperated with police, quickly leading them to accomplices. Authorities even rescued 130 other tortoises snatched by the same ring.

Finally, the jury of Guangzhou’s Intermediate Court sentenced the ringleader to 11 years in jail. Everyone else received a sentence ranging from about two to seven years.

This is far from the only instance of turtle smuggling, and it’s not necessarily the weirdest. Once, a Canadian man was arrested at the US border when police discovered that he had 50 turtles strapped to him, in his underwear and elsewhere. His partner was arrested for allegedly trying to smuggle 200 tortoises on a flight to, once again, China. A few years ago, over 10 percent of the radiated tortoise population was found in one smuggler’s bag.

Come on, people. Leave these tortoises alone. This cruelty almost makes me love the rubbery beasts. Almost.