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Old 04-26-2008, 11:59 PM   #1
Clay Davenport
Bangkok Black Market in World's Rarest Tortoise Uncovered

BANGKOK, Thailand, April 25, 2008 (ENS) - The Royal Thai Police raided the Chatuchak market in Bangkok earlier this month and seized a wide variety of illegally traded wildlife, including three of the world's rarest tortoises, after the findings of an investigation by a wildlife monitoring network operated by international conservation organizations was shared with them. But the black market in these species continues even after the raid, say conservationists.

The report was published Thursday by the wildlife monitoring network, TRAFFIC, a joint program of the global conservation organizations WWF and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, which maintains the Red List of Threatened Species.

"We congratulate the Royal Thai Police on their recent raid," said Chris Shepherd, senior programme officer for TRAFFIC Southeast Asia and a co-author of the report. "But recent information indicates the illegal trade continues, and we encourage the authorities to keep the pressure on."

The police siezed wildlife including 18 radiated tortoises and three ploughshare tortoises, prized as pets. The ploughshare tortoise, Astrochelys yniphora, is considered the world’s rarest tortoise, and all international trade in ploughshare tortoises is prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES.

Surveys by TRAFFIC investigators of Chatuchak Market, also known as the JJ or Weekend Market, found that 25 out of 27 freshwater turtles and tortoises species for sale were non-native, most of them illegally imported into the country.

During one visit to the Chatuchak Market, a dealer told a TRAFFIC researcher, without any prompting, how to smuggle turtles and tortoises out of Bangkok.

"Dealers stated openly that many specimens were smuggled into and out of Thailand," said Shepherd. "They even offered potential buyers advice on how to smuggle reptiles through customs and onto airplanes."

The most commonly seen species at the Chatuchak Market was the radiated tortoise, Astrochelys radiata, a species found in the wild only on the African island of Madagascar.

This species is listed in Appendix I of CITES, meaning that all commercial international trade in radiated tortoises is prohibited.

In a survey lasting three days, TRAFFIC investigators saw a total of 786 freshwater turtles and tortoises on sale. More than a third, 285, were species listed in Appendix I of CITES. Of these, 269 were radiated tortoises.

With fewer than 1,000 individuals remaining in the wild, the ploughshare tortoise is one of the 10 most endangered animals in the world. The tortoise got its name because part of the lower shell sticks out between the front legs like a plow. This structure, under the tortoise's neck, is used by mature males when they fight for mating rights.

Habitat loss in their native Madagascar and the illegal pet trade are the primary threats to the survival of the ploughshare tortoise.

Buyers from other parts of Asia, particularly Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, are known to purchase and smuggle home large numbers of freshwater turtles and tortoises from the dealers in Chatuchak Market for the retail market in their own countries.

"Dealers in the Chatuchak Market carried out the trade in illegally-sourced species openly and with little regard for any regulation, which highlights gaps in market monitoring and enforcement by Thai authorities," the report states.

Dealers were heard urging potential buyers to purchase the most endangered species because of their rarity value.

"It is a sad day when people use a species’ risk of extinction as a selling point," said Dr. Jane Smart, who heads IUCN's Species Programme.

"We urge governments and law enforcement agencies use the information contained in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species to stop this kind of behavior before it is too late," she said.

"The Thai authorities must continue these efforts to stem the illegal trade in these endangered species, as should other governments and their enforcement authorities," said Dr. Susan Lieberman, director of the WWF International Species Program.

"This illegal trade in freshwater turtles and tortoises is well organized, and must be tackled in an organized fashion," she said.

The report, "Pet freshwater turtle and tortoise trade in Chatuchak Market, Bangkok, Thailand," recommends amending current national legislation to close loopholes relating to the possession of CITES-listed species.

Offenders that are found importing and exporting species of freshwater turtles and tortoises should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, to serve as a deterrent, TRAFFIC recommends, saying, "Current fines and penalties are too low to serve as an effective deterrent and should therefore be increased."

The report encourages enforcement authorities at international border crossings to be more vigilant in preventing the trade in prohibited species through Thailand.

But that effort would require more training.

"During a recent capacity building workshop for Thai officials from port, airport and border check-point authorities facilitated by TRAFFIC in Bangkok in 2006, 60 participants were asked if they could identify any freshwater turtle and tortoise species," the report recounts. "None of the participants could, despite many of them being responsible for inspecting and clearing wildlife shipments through airports, ports and land border crossings."

In addition to more training and vigilance, the authors recommend increased co-operation between Thailand and other relevant countries to crack down on the highly organized illegal pet freshwater turtle and tortoise trade.

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