Using intelligence to tackle the criminal elements of the illegal trade of Indian Star tortoises in Asia

World Turtle Day: the persistent trafficking of Indian Star tortoises

The vulnerable Indian Star tortoise is trafficked by the thousands every year by criminal networks driving the illegal pet trade across Asia. The recently published paper co-authored by the Wildlife Justice Commission and Monitor Conservation Research Society (Monitor) uses data from our Operation Dragon to highlight criminal methods and the efforts needed to protect it.

Indian Start tortoise in baskets
Indian Star tortoises offered by traders to Wildlife Justice Commission investigators during Operation Dragon. ©Wildlife Justice Commission.

The ongoing and widespread trafficking of freshwater turtles and tortoises for the illegal pet market is a transnational organised wildlife crime that threatens their already vulnerable status to the verge of collapse. The demand to own live wildlife often involves the search for rarer and harder-to-obtain species, which is particularly prevalent for reptiles, with turtles having become one of the most threatened vertebrate groups globally.

The case of the Indian Star tortoise (Geochelone elegans),is particularly illustrative of this trend. The IUCN-listed vulnerable species is native to India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan and is protected in its range states  but is subjected to significant levels of trafficking across South East Asia. Indian star tortoises rank amongst the top three species of freshwater turtles and tortoises most commonly seized in the region, often comprising high volumes (1). The continuous threat to the Indian Star tortoise prompted CITES to up list it from Appendix II to Appendix I in 2019, granting it the highest level of protection from commercial trade.

The key role of intelligence to tackle wildlife crime

The recently published paper Using intelligence to tackle the criminal elements of the illegal trade in Indian Star Tortoises Geochelone elegans in Asia, co-authored by Sarah Stoner, Director of Intelligence at the Wildlife Justice Commission and Chris Shepherd, Monitor Executive Director, showcases the vulnerable status of the species, pointing at efforts needed to enhance its protection and highlighting the crucial role that intelligence plays in guiding effective law enforcement action to curb the trafficking of wildlife.

Authors have based their research on the significant amount of insightful information collected and analysed by our Intelligence Development Unit during the course of our Operation Dragon (2016-2019) to take a close look at the criminal dynamics related to the trafficking of the Indian Star tortoises. The species featured very heavily throughout the Operation, with more than 9,000 individuals offered for sale, which was documented by our investigators during the two-year investigation. The vast majority of this trade occurs underground, therefore requiring the need for intelligence.

Feedback received on the paper highlights the value and strategic role of intelligence assessments and how sharing actionable and rigorous intelligence informs law enforcement agencies in their efforts to deter transnational wildlife crime:

The information presented in this manuscript provides vital information into the current scale of the trafficking in Indian star tortoises (IST) in Southeast Asia, and reveals interesting and valuable details into this clandestine and illegal trade. The type of intelligence data collected during the operation/study by the trained investigators is perhaps beyond the scope/capacity of the average trade researcher and therefore this manuscript is able to provide novel details into the dynamics of the IST trade that would normally be unobtainable, particularly with regards to the important role that corruption plays in facilitating smuggling of tortoises within and between countries. […]

Video: In/accessible ports due to corruption

Operation Dragon (2016-2018) exposed the consistent corruption of officials at strategic transport hubs (‘settings’) across South East Asia, which facilitates the guaranteed access to safely smuggled wildlife without the risk of detection.

The Wildlife Justice Commission wishes to thank the Swedish Postcode Foundation for generously supporting this project.