In a massive bust, officials of the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) seized 406 endangered Indian star tortoises from two women passengers at the Vijayawada railway station on Tuesday.
The tortoises, with the scientific name geochelone elegans, are labelled 'endangered' under Schedule IV of India's Wild Life Protection Act, 1972 and the International Union for Conservation of Nation (IUCN).
The DRI officials along with Railway Protection Force (RPF) visited the station in the early hours of Tuesday based on a tip-off and arrested the two women travelling with four large bags, from Vivek Express.
According to reports, the women had collected the reptiles from Kadiri in Anantapur district, and were transporting it to Bhubaneswar in Odisha, from where the tortoises would be smuggled to Bangladesh.
“Export of star tortoises is banned as they are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act. Two persons involved in the illegal transport have been apprehended. Further investigation is in progress,” a DRI official was quoted as saying.
After due process, the tortoises were handed over to the Vijayawada Forest Range Officer, where they would stay in official custody.
“The accused are natives of Chittoor district. We are trying to find out how and from where they collected the tortoises, since how long the smuggling has been going on, locals involved in the racket, details of Bangladesh smugglers and other particulars,” a DRI official added.
In December last year, customs officials at the Chennai airport caught two men trying to smuggle nearly 210 baby star tortoises, stuffed in boxes of chocolate, to Bangkok.
A star tortoise is one of the most expensive reptile pets in the international pet market in a number of countries in Asia, like Malaysia, Singapore, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, as well as to European and America.
According to numbers from the Wildlife Protection Society of India, while almost 8,000 star tortoises were rescued between 1990 and 1999, the number shot up to 36,000 between 2000 and 2013, with a majority of them seized from Tamil Nadu.