Two suspects have been arrested in Thailand in connection with the sale of critically endangered Burmese star tortoises on Facebook, reports the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA).
Seven tortoises were confiscated from the home of one of the suspects upon his arrest on December 22 in Khon Khaen Province, in northeast Thailand. Three of the confiscated tortoises were determined to be among others stolen in October from a wildlife sanctuary in central Myanmar, where WCS and TSA conservationists have been working with the Myanmar Forest Department to reintroduce the species back into the wild. The origin of the four other tortoises is unknown. The second suspect was arrested after the first said he had purchased the tortoises from him in a market. No tortoises were found on the second suspect but he was arrested after an illegally obtained orangutan was found in his possession.
The stolen tortoises had identification numbers and religious markings on their shells and microchips embedded in them. When confiscated, the numbers and Buddhist icons tattooed on their carapace had been sanded away.
The Burmese star tortoise, with radiating star-shaped patterns on its shell, is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN and is found only in central Myanmar. It is believed to be extinct in the wild with no known viable populations remaining in their natural habitat. Following the successful work of the WCS Myanmar Program and the Turtle Survival Alliance, there are now several thousand in captive-breeding facilities in Myanmar and a program to release captive-born Burmese star tortoises into the wild began in 2013.
Historically, the Burmese star tortoise was hunted for meat by rural Burmese. In the mid-1990s, this species of tortoise began turning up in Chinese wildlife markets where it was sold for food, medicine, and as pets. The pet trade became paramount in the late 1990s, and in the early 2000's, the pet trade demand came primarily from Thailand, Japan, Western Europe and the United States.
"We highly commend the governments of Myanmar and Thailand for collaborating on this investigation into the stolen Burmese star tortoises," said Than Myint, WCS Myanmar Country Program Director. "By working together, these governments are helping to ensure the survival of this highly endangered tortoise."
In October the Department of National Parks in Thailand was alerted to a Facebook posting with the sale of the tortoises. WCS and TSA then provided to the officials the tortoise identification numbers which are given to all animals raised in Myanmar. After the finding the initial Facebook post, continued monitoring of the site revealed additional tortoises being offered for sale. Based on the information provided to the officials, a raid was conducted on the home of the person posting the sales on Facebook. Using a microchip reader, 2 of the confiscated tortoises were found to have microchips holding information that matched the stolen tortoises while another one had no microchip, but it was identified by permanent markings made on the shell. Steven Platt of the WCS on behalf of the Myanmar government's Forest Department travelled to Thailand to definitively identify the stolen tortoises. "In addition to the great investigative work by the Thailand and Myanmar governments, we are grateful for our partnership with the Turtle Survival Alliance, which has been integral in this investigation" said Platt. TSA President Rick Hudson said "This case illustrates well just how brazen illegal wildlife traffickers have become in marketing smuggled animals on the internet. It is a blatant affront to international wildlife laws and needs to be shut down. This is a good start and I applaud all those involved." The confiscated tortoises will be moved to a wildlife rescue center in Thailand and ultimately returned to Myanmar. Thailand officials are continuing to search for the remaining stolen tortoises.