French customs officials have intercepted an illegal shipment of near-extinct tortoises from Madagascar at a Paris airport. In a tweet published Monday, authorities announced the discovery of the 170 baby tortoises, 15 of which have since perished as a result of what authorities referred to as, "highly inappropriate transport conditions."
The thieves used a method of concealment similar to cocaine smuggling. The tortoises were wrapped in tape and then hidden in a the compartments of six crates filled with sea cucumbers — a marine animal that lives on the sea floor that is commonly bought and sold for purposes of adding to Chinese and other cuisine.
The radiated tortoise, also known as Astrochelys Radiata or "star tortoise of Madagascar," is prized by collectors, and is often referred to as the most beautiful turtle in the world because of the eye-catching star pattern on its shell.
The rare tortoises, which are found mostly in the south and southeast of Madagascar, can live well over a century. Smaller colonies of the creatures are also found on the French islands of La Réunion and Mauritius, where they were introduced as pets.
A report published last August by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) highlights the plight of the star tortoise, which is today critically endangered due to environmental degradation and commercial exploitation.
The Astrochelys Radiata has been featured on IUCN's Red List — the world's most comprehensive inventory of the conservation status of biological species — since 2008. The tortoises are currently classified as "critically endangered" — a status that is only two steps away from extinction. According to the IUCN, "reptiles are among Madagascar's most bewildering creatures, but nearly 40 percent of them are facing an elevated risk of extinction."
IUCN predicts that extinction of the species will occur in the next 40 years if nothing is done to stop their illegal trade. The tortoises are particularly at risk around Christmas and Easter time, when they are harvested both for their meat and for sale on the exotic pet market.
Radiated tortoises are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international treaty which forbids the commercial trade of endangered species. But a study from 2005 estimated that anywhere between 22,000 to 241,000 tortoises are harvested each year, mostly to supply the growing exotic pet trade in Asia.
The seized shipment of tortoises was on its way from Madagascar to Laos when it was stopped by customs officials at Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport, near Paris.The surviving baby tortoises were transferred to the Turtle Village (Village Tortues), a turtle sanctuary in France's southern Var region.
The sanctuary's founder and director, Bernard Devaux, told VICE News that radiated tortoises are often smuggled because of their eye-catching shells, which make them look like "small living jewels."
"This is the first time so many are seized in France," said Devaux. "Usually, the authorities find them in Bangkok. These were probably destined for sale in Laos, maybe China."
A radiated tortoise can fetch up to $10,000 on the exotic pet black market. According to Devaux, typical buyers could include collectors who specialize in illegal reptiles, such as snakes and crocodiles.
Follow Etienne Rouillon on Twitter: @rouillonetienne