More Than 1,500 Live Duct-taped Turtles, Worth Almost $100,000, Found in Unclaimed Luggage at Philippines Airport

Turtles Manila
The animals were left behind by a Filipino passenger travelling from Hong Kong, who possibly dumped the luggage containing the exotic reptiles to avoid the airport’s stringent crackdown on illegal wildlife trade. Bureau of Customs NAIA

Customs agents in the Philippines recovered 1,500 live turtles and tortoises that were found covered in duct tape and stashed inside four unclaimed pieces of luggage at a Manilla airport.

CNN Philippines reported that the turtles had been left behind by a Filipino passenger traveling from Hong Kong, who possibly dumped the luggage containing the exotic reptiles to avoid the airport's stringent crackdown on illegal wildlife trade.

The 1,529 amniotes, which included star tortoises, redfoot tortoises, sulcata tortoises and red-eared slider turtles, would have sold for $86,631, the BBC reported.

If caught, the smugglers could face up to two years in prison, as well as a fine equivalent to $3,500.

The sulcata tortoise, which was among those recovered from the arrivals area of Ninoy Aquino International Airport, was recognized as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The breed of turtle has been placed on the Switzerland-based conservation body's Red List of Threatened Species.

The Philippines Bureau of Customs said the animals were brought into the country onboard a Philippines Airlines flight. The customs enforcement agency said its preventive measures had forced the smuggler to abandon the cargo. The exotic animals were handed to the national Wildlife Traffic Monitoring Unit.

It is not clear what market the wild animals were destined for. Turtles and tortoises, while often kept as exotic pets, can also be killed and their body parts harvested for use in traditional Asian medicine. Their meat can also be served as a regional delicacy or as an aphrodisiac.

People are often confounded by turtles and tortoises, but they can be distinguished from one another by their natural habitats. Tortoises are strictly land animals, whereas turtles can be both aquatic and land-based.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported earlier this year that the Manila customs bureau had intercepted 60 iguanas, chameleons and bearded dragons that had been smuggled into the country. In 2018, a total of 560 animals, including endangered species, were seized in parcels, shipments and baggage entering the Philippines.

Across the world, the illegal trafficking of wildlife is estimated to be a $17 billion industry. The most highly prized items include trophies from large African game, such as elephants and rhinos. But the market for reptiles appears to be growing, with indications that the animals were fetching record prices.