Are Wildlife Trafficking Punishments Starting to Fit the Crimes?

China’s recent sentencing of Madagascar tortoise smugglers sends a strong message to would-be wildlife traffickers.

A radiated tortoise at Arboretum D’antsokay in Toliara province, Madagascar. (Photo: Insights/Getty Images)

Aug 19, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Get caught smuggling illegal wildlife in most countries in the world, and you can expect a slap on the wrist. A very gentle slap at that.

“Somebody could take an AK-47 and just shoot up a pod of pilot whales,” one frustrated investigator recently complained. “That’s the same as a traffic offense.”

It’s why wildlife crime has become a $10 billion–a–year industry: It’s safer than robbing a bank. It’s more lucrative than selling drugs.

So it should be big news that China, the leading market for wildlife trafficking worldwide, has just handed out jail sentences ranging from 21 months to 11 years to seven defendants caught smuggling hundreds of Madagascar’s critically endangered radiated tortoises.

“This sentencing sends a strong message to illegal wildlife dealers that the punishment for these activities will fit the severity of the crime,” said Brian D. Horne, a Wildlife Conservation Society herpetologist who provided the prosecution with expertise.

The sentencing is the result of an investigation that began with the 2015 arrest at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport of an airport security worker toting two backpacks containing 316 juvenile tortoises. The animals had come in on a flight from Madagascar as part of the baggage of Chinese immigrant workers there. The animals were wrapped in tinfoil, a precaution to avoid x-ray detection during transit via commercial airlines.

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That suspect, who had access to the baggage area, agreed to cooperate with investigators, leading to the dismantling of the criminal ring. Investigators also seized a second shipment that contained 160 radiated tortoises. The plan was to deliver the animals to an apartment in Guangzhou being used as a breeding facility; the aim was to produce tortoises in captivity for the pet trade. The entire scheme was built, incidentally, on a faulty premise: While females can produce up to three egg clutches per year—of one to five eggs per clutch—they do not reach sexual maturity for 15 to 20 years, making commercial production impractical. So some of the animals were also being offered for sale online.

Radiated tortoises are one of the most beautiful tortoise species in the world, noted for the yellow lines fanning out from the center of each of the plates on their domed shells. They can grow to 16 inches in length and weigh up to 35 pounds, and they are also remarkably long-lived. One given to the king of Tonga, supposedly by Capt. James Cook in 1777, survived until 1965.

Nobody knows how many of the tortoises survive in the wild, but they are endangered primarily by the rapid loss of habitat to slash-and-burn agriculture, livestock ranching, charcoal burning, and illegal logging. People also seek them out for food and the lucrative pet trade, which is popular in southern China. You can also buy radiated tortoises in the United States, at prices of around $3,000 for a six-inch animal and more than $6,000 for an adult. Those tortoises are ostensibly from captive-bred stock, though keeping them is forbidden by law in many states.

The hefty sentences handed out in the Guangzhou case, including an 11-year jail term for the leader of the criminal ring, reflect an increasing effort by the Chinese government to treat wildlife crime more seriously. Lishu Li, China wildlife trade program manager for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said that over the past 10 years, she has observed a growing public awareness about the threat to wildlife. “The lifestyle is gradually changing,” Li said. “The education level is increasing. People in urban areas are watching nature documentaries. People are more willing to travel now. High-level politicians in recent years have also put a lot of emphasis on what they call eco-stabilization.”

But demand for wildlife products remains high, and higher education and income level also means buyers tend to focus on more exotic, often endangered species. In the aftermath of news reports about sentencing in the radiated tortoise case, the Wildlife Conservation Society conducted an informal survey and detected what Li termed a new note of panicky concern among sellers. But it will take many more such stiff jail sentences, handed out in case after case, to make the message stick.

The nearly 500 juvenile tortoises seized in the case went to a local rescue center. Returning them to their habitat in Madagascar is fraught with difficulties, including the danger of bringing back disease. “That’s why we want to stop the trade before it gets started,” Li said. “Once the tortoise is taken away from its native habitat, the misery story begins.”