Of Pets, Delicacies and Calipee: A glimpse into the seamless trade in freshwater turtles and tortoises

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By Ramya Roopa Sengottuvel

Trade in wildlife has existed for decades. However, trafficking is no longer synonymous only with illegal trade in big charismatic fauna or their parts, such as the pelts of big cats, rhino horns, elephant ivory and so on. Several animal and plant species – newer, rarer and barely known, have come to enter and dominate illegal markets, both nationally and internationally. Like other trade industries, trends in the type and quantity of the commodity traded (a species or its parts), fluctuate with the market demand. Unlike other trade industries, routes change dynamically in order to maintain these illegal operations undetected.

With at least 14 out of the 29 species of native freshwater turtles and tortoises already in illegal trade [1] either for the pet or the meat market; the case of turtle and tortoise trafficking in India, throws light not only on the operation of this type of trade, but also on that of wildlife trafficking in general.

A well-established market

As recent as the first week of March this year, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, the nodal body mandated to tackle wildlife crime in the country, seized more than 500 Softshell turtles (Family: Trionychidae) at the Kolkata Railway Station. These turtles were being carried on board a train from Uttar Pradesh to West Bengal, on their way to cater to the long-established turtle meat markets of North 24 Parganas, a district in West Bengal bordering Bangladesh.

The Softshell turtles as a group (protected from all types of hunting, trade or possession under the Wild Life Protection (Act), 1972) are commonly poached throughout the country for their meat. In West Bengal and adjoining areas, particularly, the tradition of turtle meat consumption is both prevalent and deep-seated. In fact, markets that sell turtle meat in this region have been well-documented since the 1980’s [2].

What is astonishing though is the scale of operation that continues even today. Huge volumes of live softshells, sometimes over 5000 individuals at a time, packed in wet gunny bags, make their way into West Bengal through the rail route or road route, from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, regularly year after year.

A seized Indian Flapshell Turtle (Lissemys punctata, Family: Trionychidae). Photo courtesy: Anirban Chaudhuri

At the supply end, it is unclear if these turtles are harvested from various sources and stocked at specific locations prior to transport (to yield such grand numbers) or if there are other methods of operation at play. The recent emergence of trade in calipee, a fatty substance present over the lower shell of these turtles, has further opened up new trade routes to China and other Southeast Asian countries (via the Indo-Bangla border). This product is used as an ingredient in soups and traditional medicines in these countries. 

Levels of organization

Despite the sheer volume traded, a large portion of Softshell trafficking involves a seemingly unsophisticated network that has not mandated high levels of organization thus-far. Several factors indicate high levels of organization in illegal wildlife trade, including the structure of the poaching/trade network, use of arms, corruption of law enforcement agencies, sophistication of trade routes, concealment methods and so on [3]. With the Softshell turtles, both the abundance and accessibility of the turtles themselves and the relatively restricted geographical extent of the trade, has contributed to a simple trade chain. 

This is in contrast to the other major market of turtles and tortoises, one that operates on a global scale and plausibly requires higher levels of sophistication and organization in the trade chain: the illegal pet industry*.

A booming business

Beauty and rarity mean everything in the illegal pet industry. The Indian star tortoises (Geochelone elegans), a native of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, are a staple in the pet markets of Thailand, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries. Despite being protected under both Indian and international law, this species has been trafficked in staggering quantities from India to these countries, since the 1990s [4]

Typically, tortoises from around the scrub forests of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are harvested by rural collectors, from where they pass into the hands of rural suppliers, different levels of urban traders and then to the ‘couriers’, who finally smuggle the tortoises abroad [5]. Frequently transported by air, past seizures have been documented in the International Airports of Chennai, Bengaluru, Cochin, Thiruvananthapuram, Tiruchirappalli, Madurai and so on. They are also moved from South India to Southeast Asia, through the West Bengal-Dhaka (Bangladesh) route and sometimes, via Sri Lanka. 

Curiously, star tortoises have also been suspected to be illegally captive-bred in certain pockets of India, specifically for trade. This speculation has likely risen from a few large volume seizures comprising uniform-sized, similar-aged juvenile star tortoises. However, little to no verified information is available to confirm this.

A 2018 seizure of Indian star tortoises in Kolkata. Photo courtesy: Anirban Chaudhuri

While star tortoises are arguably the most traded species from India for pet markets, the scale and enormity of the illegal pet industry, means a regular and constant supply of newer and rarer species. 

The red-crowned roofed turtles (Batagur kachuga), a critically endangered species, is also traded for the pet market. With confirmed populations present only in India and restricted to a stretch of the Chambal River, this is likely one of the rarest Indian turtles to have emerged in the international market. The males of this species develop a flamboyant red, yellow, white and blue coloration in the face, head and neck, during the breeding season and are likely trafficked for the same.    

In a major 2017 case, this species was seized while being smuggled by a network of poachers, mid-level traders and international traders, some of whom were regularly involved in the trafficking of other species – turtles, tortoises and many more. Owing to its rarity, each individual red-crowned roofed turtle commands a very high price in international markets, providing ample opportunity for a lucrative business. In fact, during a two-year (2016-2018) investigation conducted on turtle trafficking, the Hague based Foundation Wildlife Justice Commission, noticed an emerging trend in the trafficking of rarer and therefore, higher-value turtle species [6].   

Trade is trade

In the end, trade is trade. Soft-shell turtles, star tortoises and the red crowned roofed turtles, are just a few among the vast pool of animal and plant species that are traded like any other commodity. When populations of one species or its parts decline, it is replaced by another in the black market. In this scenario of a fluctuating market, predicting emerging patterns and trends is often a challenge. This is further exacerbated by dealings moving to obscure, often hard-to-trace platforms on the internet. 

While government agencies and other independent bodies play their part in bringing this shadow industry to the forefront, the research community could possibly attempt to bridge prediction gaps by borrowing and adapting frameworks of thinking from other well-studied criminological arenas [7] [8] [9]. Considering that illegal wildlife trade is a truly multi-national and multi-agency issue, integrating expertise, experience and knowledge from these various fields, at whatever scale could still be a win. As illegal wildlife trade, quietly decimates populations of common and rare species alike, we can no longer think of it just as a problem for enthusiasts and supporters of conservation. In effect, the current coronavirus pandemic that had allegedly originated in a wildlife market, is a reminder of why wildlife trade should be everyone’s concern.


  1. Badola, S., Choudhary, A.N. & Chhabra, D.B. (2019). Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles in illegal trade in India (2019). TRAFFIC Study. Retrieved from https://www.traffic.org/publications/reports/illegal-testudine-trade-in-india/
  2. Moll, E.O. (1990). India’s freshwater turtle resource with recommendations for management. In: Daniel, J.C., Serrao, J.P. (Eds.), Conservation in Developing Countries: Problems and Prospects: Proceedings of the Centenary Seminar of the Bombay Natural History Society. Oxford University Press, Bombay, pp. 501–515.
  3. Morrison, S. (2002). Approaching organised crime: where are we now and where are we going? Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice. (231), 1. Retrieved from https://aic.gov.au/publications/tandi/tandi231  
  4. Choudhury, B.C. & Bhupathy, S. (1993). Turtle Trade in India: A Study of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles (New Delhi).
  5. D’Cruze, N., Singh, B., Morrison, T., Schmidt-Burbach, J., Macdonald, D.W. & Mookerjee, A. (2015). A star attraction: the illegal trade in Indian star tortoises. Nature Conservation. 131–19. http://dx.doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.13.5625
  6. Stoner, S. (2018).  Emerging international trade in vulnerable species of South Asian freshwater turtles. TRAFFIC Bulletin. 30(2), 45-47. Retrieved from https://www.traffic.org/site/assets/files/11356/bulletin-30_2-south-asian-turtles.pdf
  7. Nigel, S. & Wyatt, T. (2011). Comparing Illicit Trades in Wildlife and Drugs: An Exploratory Study. Deviant Behavior. 32(6), 538-561. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01639625.2010.483162
  8. Pires, S.F., & Clarke, R. V. (2012). Are parrots CRAVED? An analysis of parrot poaching in Mexico. Journal of research in crime and delinquency. 49(1), 122-146. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022427810397950
  9. Pires, S. F., Schneider, J. L., & Herrera, M. (2016). Organized crime or crime that is organized? The parrot trade in the neotropics. Trends in Organized Crime. 19(1), 4-20. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12117-015-9259-7

*Organized crime is different from crime that is organized, as discussed by Pires et al. 2016

First Published in Planet Untamed Magazine


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