Seized Turtles in the EU as a Source for Conservation

The European Union has traditionally been a very important market for the reptile trade. We all think of Germany, of course, but all the other countries have a strong appeal for traders, both legal and illegal. As the EU and National regulations became tighter (a process still going on), the illegal trade in turtles has grown, calling higher attention from several Law Enforcement Agencies throughout Europe. This has resulted in a number of seizures: although a complete picture is difficult to put together, information gathered by the writer point to an average of 2000-3000 specimen per year from 2005 to 2008.

However, this is surely a broadly underestimated figure. We can split the European illegal turtle trade in two main typologies: 1) high-volume smuggling of low-valued species (mainly Testudo ssp.), and 2) smaller batches of highly-prized tortoises and turtles. A typical 1) case involves the shipping of 300-1200 tortoises (T. graeca sensu latu, T. hermanni, T. kleinmanni at times) from circum-Mediterranean countries through Italy, France or Spain, destined for fairs and little markets with a final selling price ranging from 30 to 150€. A typical 2) case involves very small batches (single animals at times) of high-profile species clearly destined for the discerning collector. Offers known to the writer in recent times have included A. yniphora, S. leytensis and several Cuora ssp. (including an alleged yunnanensis). These animals travel mainly from southeast Asia and enter the EU through Balkan countries, being then moved by road to the final destination. In between, we have all possible variations, such as 50-100 Astrochelys radiata, Stigmochelys pardalis, Kinyxis ssp., Malacochersus tornieri etc. European Law Enforcement Agencies are now succeeding in stopping a significant part of this trade, but what happens to the seized turtles? There’s no rule here, and the situation is more complicated then it would seem at first. The main problem is that Government Officials apply laws which seldom – if ever – determine what to do following the seizure. So the batches are treated singly, and their survival and future often becomes a matter of chance and luck. Apart from any moral or ethical consideration, turtles which might prove useful for reintroduction or ex-situ projects are simply lost to “The Cause” for sheer lack of communication and coordination between authorities and the conservation world. So here we are, with a few hundred valuable tortoises potentially ready to be involved in some project: but who can we put at the receiving end? The first answer is quick and logical: those zoos and aquaria which have a growing attitude towards conservation. The problem is that the total housing capability of these facilities will never come close to matching the number of animals offered. Answer number two points to rescue centers: there are a few throughout Europe, but none – at present - seems to have the resources to successfully deal with the yearly volume of seizures. Other problems include the traditional – and not always fully justified - diffidence of officials towards private breeders: breeders which have shown a remarkable success rate in any aspect of turtle keeping, often exceeding the results achieved by institutions. Another key factor is the apparently complete lack of understanding that the time frame between the seizure and disposal is critical to the survival of the turtles: putting together a mix of T. graeca, T. hermanni and T. kleinmanni for months (or years!) in some enclosure - while waiting for the CITES papers allowing reallocation to be issued - invariably means all kinds of trouble, and most likely death for a high percentage of the turtles involved. There’s a serious question we have to pose to the government authorities: what did the legislator have in mind when they wrote the rules? Was the aim to create excessive paper work, overload police and custom officials with additional work, or did he think of animal welfare and wildlife conservation? There seems to be a disconnect between the regulations and the actual needs of confiscated animals. Simply classifying them as "seized," and leaving them packed away as cargo is not practical, as the people who have to apply these laws on a daily basis know. So much for the problems; but what solutions can we provide, or hope for? The first need is to get a clearer picture of the seizures. Several EU countries maintain a seizure database, and/or take part in the EU-TWIX project: these sources should be coordinated as much as possible to allow info to become available to conservationists in real time. Second, national authorities should recognize the need to establish standardized procedures allowing seized turtles to be quickly transferred to the receiving subjects. Papers can wait, turtles can’t. Third, conservation NGOs such as the TSA and the European Studbook Foundation should act as an interface between the authorities and the receiving subjects; this is especially needed whenever private breeders are involved. The NGO not only creates the contact and coordinates the operation but, thanks to a very strict “code of conduct” imposed on members, prevents animals from going into improper hands once assigned to privates. The benefits of an organized studbook are well-known, and will not be discussed further here. Fourth, appeals should be sent to, and contacts made with all those European Institutions (EAZA or not), rescue centers etc. that have a potential interest in housing and caring for seized turtles. A database of potential receivers would greatly ease and quicken our job. Fifth, and perhaps the most difficult and important: every effort should be made to organize and create a high-profile European Turtle Rescue Centre. The Centre would be located in the southern part of the continent, be within the distribution area of several Testudo ssp., be near the illegal trade hotspots, be recognized by the Authorities and - especially – fully capable of dealing with a few thousand turtles a year, thus minimizing the risks of transit times and diseases due to neglect and poor husbandry. The practical implementation of these few guidelines will remove many unneeded paper folders from officials’ desks, will offer conservationist much precious material and, finally, will give many smuggled turtles a better future than what they face today.

Alessandro Fornetti 

Henk Zwartepoorte 
Chair TSA Europe 
Chair European Studbook Foundation 
Assistant Curator Reptiles and Amphibians Rotterdam Zoo