The illegal trade in South Asian freshwater turtles and tortoises for pets is widespread and is increasingly characterised as transnational, organised wildlife crime. It poses a substantial threat to numerous species, many of which are already critically endangered. The demand to own live wildlife is often coupled with a desire for rarer and harder to obtain species and is particularly prevalent for freshwater tortoises and turtles as exotic pets, the latter having become one of the most threatened vertebrate groups globally.
As part of the Wildlife Justice Commission’s (WJC) mission to disrupt and help dismantle transnational criminal networks, the organisation sought to tackle the freshwater turtle and tortoise trade in Asia, which is particularly prevalent in this region. The WJC undertakes undercover, intelligence-led investigations and will often engage directly with traders and brokers as prospective buyers.
Between January 2016 and January 2018, the WJC conducted Operation Dragon focused on criminal networks operating in the illegal trade in live birds, reptiles, turtles, tortoises and primates, which are in high demand for the live pet trade across South and South-East Asia. Over the past 10 years with 100,000 turtles seized and no major targets arrested, the WJC decided to focus on previously untouched networks and to identify and expose the corruption that facilitates the trade. This focused and closely co-ordinated investigation resulted in the arrest of 30 high-level persons of interest across Malaysia, India and Bangladesh, of which five have been given custodial sentences and one remains outstanding on INTERPOL’s Red Notice.
This briefing paper summarises the data collected by the Wildlife Justice Commission during Operation Dragon (2016-2018) and subsequent analysis, aiming at directing further research to assess the extent to which these species are in demand globally.