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  PlanetArk 26 Jun 07
Malaysia to Return Smuggled Tortoises to India

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia will ship back to India nearly 400 live star-patterned tortoises smuggled from the country, wildlife officials said on Monday.

The shipment is due on Tuesday and comes as Malaysia seized a batch of smuggled Tanzanian tortoises this month in two cases that underline large-scale smuggling of tortoises and other endangered wildlife into and through Malaysia.

"There's a good demand for the tortoises in Malaysia as pets," Haidar Khan, a senior director at Malaysia's Wildlife Department, told reporters. "They are not meant for restaurants."

He said customs officers at Kuala Lumpur's airport seized 404 Indian Star Tortoises in April from an Indian national's cabin luggage. The man was immediately deported to India and no charges were laid.

The tortoises, scientifically known as "Geochelone elegans", could have fetched up to US$23,700 in total, Haidar said. But only 385 of the tortoises will make it to India as the remaining 19 have since died, he said.

Native to the Indian sub-continent, the tortoise is distinctive, growing up to about 30 centimetres across the carapace, conservationists said.

"But it faces a number of threats: it is traded for food, used in traditional medicine (primarily in Asia) and kept as a pet in Asia and North America," Christian nature conservation group A Rocha said in on its Web site http://en.arocha.org.

In India, it is illegal either to possess or trade the Indian Star Tortoise and the species is also legally protected in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, it said.

According to the Turtle Survival Alliance, India has 28 species and subspecies of tortoises and freshwater turtles, making it one of the most diverse chelonian faunas in the world.

Wildlife's Haidar said his department was also talking to Tanzanian authorities on whether to return 76 Leopard Tortoises (Geochelone pardalis) seized from a courier office at Kuala Lumpur's airport on June 12.

"The consignment was declared as clay pots. We may also deport the tortoises following an investigation." The Leopard Tortoise, much larger than the Indian species, is found mainly in the sub-Saharan region.

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