Shell-shocked: Officials find 199 rare tortoises, turtles in UAE fliers’ bags

Shell-shocked: Officials find 199 rare tortoises, turtles in UAE fliers’ bags

Air Intelligence Unit (AIU) officers intercepted two men with United Arab Emirates (UAE) passports carrying 199 endangered tortoises and turtles in four checked-in bags on Thursday night. A case has been registered against the two men, who are cousins.

Marwan Ali Hassan and Sultan Ibrahim Ali Alfaqi bought the protected animals in Mumbai and were planning to smuggle them to the UAE. At the airport, they pretended to be working for the Dubai police but could not produce any IDs to prove this, a source said.

Their bags contained 197 Indian star tortoises, which are protected under Schedule 4 of the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), 1972, and two spotted black pond turtles, which are even more endangered and protected under Schedule 1 of the WPA.

An official said the animals had been carelessly stuffed into the four bags. “Such smuggling harms the animals and many die en route. The two men said in their statements that they had bought them from a man at Crawford market who agreed to lower the rate if they bought in bulk,” the official added.

A source said these tortoises and turtles, which are found in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, are in high demand in the UAE. “They claimed they wanted to keep them in their farmhouse but the quantity suggests they were meant for trading,” said the officer.

Officials in the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) said the two men were handed over to the Thane forest range of the state’s forest department.

“The accused will be presented in court on Saturday and tried under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 as the two turtles are protected under Schedule 1 of the act,” said M Maranko, regional deputy director, WCCB.

A source told Hindustan Times that officials from the UAE consulate in Mumbai demanded that the men be deported and tried in a Dubai court. However, after three hours of negotiations, they were handed over to forest department officials.

Animal activists said the turtles were dehydrated and appeared traumatised when they were handed over to the forest department. “The reptiles have been kept at the Thane forest office, where they have been given food and water. We are hoping their condition will stabilise soon,” said Pawan Sharma, president of Resqink Association for Wildlife Welfare (RAWW), an NGO that is helping the forest department rehabilitate the reptiles.

Experts said that despite their protected status, traders have been finding new ways to smuggle such animals out of the country. “The number of cases has not decreased as smugglers use apps such as WhatsApp to communicate,” said Jose Louies, head of trade control, Wildlife Trust of India.