Police Raid Europe's Largest Illegal Turtle Farm

Spanish police have shut down what they call the largest illegal turtle hatchery in Europe, rescuing more than 1,000 turtles and tortoises.

The farm was located on the Mediterranean island of Majorca. According to a statement from the Europol European law enforcement agency, it housed 1,110 animals including 14 of the 50 most endangered turtles species in the world. Video released by the Spanish Civil Guard showed hundreds of turtles crammed into plastic tubs.

Up to 750 eggs were also rescued while more than 200 of the female turtles were soon to lay eggs themselves. Had the authorities delayed the raid, the number of rescued animals would have been much higher. There were 62 different species recorded among those found at the hatchery.

Police began planning the raid—code-named Operation Coahuila—after intercepting a shipment of illegal turtles at the Spanish Palma de Mallorca Airport in February 2017. Many were species at high risk of extinction and thus protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). A police investigation eventually led them to the farm in question.

Three people have been arrested so far—two Germans and the Spanish owner of an exotic pet store in Barcelona. Three more are still under investigation. If the three detainees cannot prove legal ownership of the turtles, they will likely face charges of smuggling protected species. All three will also be charged with money laundering.

Turtle and tortoise smuggling can be a lucrative business. Their shells, meat and skin can all be sold to be used in the restaurant and manufacturing industries, while they are also sold as pets. The total value of all the reptiles and eggs recovered is around $694,000. Some species were so rare that each animal could cost as much as $11,500. The smuggling trade is one of the most significant dangers facing such species.

The animals came from as far afield as Canada, Mexico and the U.S. One species—the radiated tortoise, or Astrochelys radiata—is native to the island nation of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. These tortoises are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Box turtles were also recovered, which are at high risk of extinction in their native Southeast Asian region.

Only radiated tortoises bred at CITES-approved farms can be sold for international commercial purposes, according to National Geographic. However, the Majorca hatchery is not listed on the organization's registry of approved captive breeding operations.