The Bengaluru City Police dismantled a network of star-tortoise smugglers from Chikkaballapur when they picked up three of people for questioning from a bus stop near RMC Yard in north Bengaluru on Tuesday, 6 September.
The cops also rescued around 1,000 Indian star tortoises that were stuffed into a gunny bag like onions or potatoes.
“The star tortoises are protected under Schedule IV of the Indian Wildlife Act of 1972 as well as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITE). Illegal trade of these tortoises is carried out by organised syndicates, and the offenders attract a jail term of at least five to seven years if they are convicted,” Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) volunteer Sharath Babu.
The RMC Yard police detained the three and are questioning them to get to the mastermind of the racket, who apparently fled after coming to know that the cops had picked them up.
Meanwhile, all the tortoises have been shifted to the Bannerghatta Rescue Centre (BRC) for rehabilitation.
The challenge is that the BRC is not only short-staffed when it comesto the number of veterinarians or volunteers to handle all these tortoises in one go, but providing food, medicines, and heating pads for all them is a hassle because a majority of them are hatchlings.
“The RMC Yard police will have to be given all credit for the timely intervention and rescue of all these smuggled endangered tortoises. At least 50 percent of them die while being transported in gunny bags. However, in this case, only 3 percent of the tortoises had lost their lives by the time the wildlife consignment was seized,” Sharath Babu told South First.
Bengaluru City North Division Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) Vinayak Patil told South First that the cops, upon questioning the detained three suspects — all of them from the Hakki Pikki tribe — learnt that these men were used as only chainlinks in the international trade to transport the consignment from one place to another.
The police said they managed to obtain the phone number of the person who was supposed to collect the consignment, but it appeared to be a stolen one, meaning it was a dead-end.
Mating or breeding of Indian star tortoises happens during the rainy seasons, soon after which the smugglers engage the Hakki Pikki tribal men to catch the tortoises.
The men are offered alcohol and around ₹5,000 for the task.
“If they transport the consignment to specified spots, they are paid more. Recent inquiries by forest officials with the Hakki Pikki tribal men revealed that they even obtained passports and would travel to foreign countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, taking along Indian star tortoises along in backpacks to be sold there,” said a forest official.
These tribal men, most of them from the Eastern Ghats — from Badvel up to Podili in Andhra Pradesh, extending up to the Andhra-Karnataka border — have their base in not just Chikkaballapur but sometimes also Kolar and Mulubagal.
They are said to have a well-woven smuggling network of Indian star tortoises from their habitat during specific seasons.
Most of these tribal men work as farmers, cattle rearers, and shepherds. However, they engage in this trade in the hatchling season.
They enter tortoise habitats and capture them en masse, supplying them to smugglers in Mumbai, Chennai and sometimes to Bengaluru.
A week ago, a man trying to fly abroad was intercepted by the Bengaluru International Airport authorities, who rescued 60 Indian star tortoises from his backpack.
“At Chennai airport, officials are accustomed to a colloquial term called ‘Kuruvi’, which translated into English as bird. Kuruvis are sent abroad for trips where they are also paid ₹15,000 for carrying a backpack with the smuggled wildlife. When they reach abroad, they hand over the consignment to their handlers and return with another consignment — not necessarily wildlife,” another senior forest official said.
“Only a minuscule proportion of the Indian star tortoises getting smuggled is being intercepted by law enforcement agencies. Smugglers have their own modus operandi to transport these protected tortoises, using air and sea routes, where authorities of certain states are lax,” said Babu.