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Rare pig-nosed turtles are finally returned to Papua from Hong Kong

Nearly 600 protected pig-nosed turtles (Carettochelys insculpta) seized in Hong Kong during a failed smuggling attempt in January 2018 and suspected to have been poached from the wild in Indonesia, have been returned home to Papua.

The Governments of Indonesia and Hong Kong SAR teamed up with Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden (KFBG) and International Animal Rescue (IAR) Indonesia to repatriate the turtles at the KFBG back to their natural habitat.

A team consisting of representatives from the Indonesian Natural Resources and Ecosystem Conservation (KSDAE), KFBG, IAR Indonesia and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia accompanied the surviving 599 turtles back to Papua. The release site was along the Kao River, which runs through the Boven Digoel Regency in southern Papua.

The release of the turtles in the Digoel River was overseen by Government officials from the Boven Digoel Regency, the Sokanggo Village Leader, the local Pastor and members of the community.

Wempi Hutubessy, a representative from the district government who attended the release, said: “The government and the people here are very appreciative and enthusiastic about the release of the turtles.” He went on to say: “The pig-nosed turtles are an asset to our district so, together with the local community, we are ready to help maintain and conserve them so they are no longer smuggled out of the village.”

In order to reach the release site, the turtles spent nearly three days in transit: a five-hour flight from Hong Kong to Jakarta, a nine-hour flight from Jakarta to Merauke in Papua and finally a ten-hour drive to the release site. All animals survived the journey and were released according to plan.

Indra Exploitasia, Director of Biodiversity Conservation from Directorate General Conservation Natural Resource and Ecosystem, The Ministry of Environment and Forestry was particularly supportive of this collaborative effort, asserting that this successful repatriation of pig-nosed turtles back to their country of origin is thanks to different stakeholders across different countries in their efforts to mitigate the illegal trade in wildlife.

During a press conference at the Customs Office in Soekarno-Hatta Airport, Erwin Situmorang, the Head of Customs Service, said that he hoped environmental crimes like this would not happen again.  “We must not concede like this anymore – not just for CITES Appendix listed species that are entering this country, but also for those that are leaving. We have to protect our own resources so they do not become commodities in other countries.”

During January 2018, three separate interceptions and confiscations of Pig Nosed Turtles took place at the Hong Kong International Airport by the Customs & Excise Department authorities. The first confiscation comprising 658 turtles occurred on 12 January 2018 and was followed by two further seizures of more than 1500 turtles on 28 January 2018. All were on direct flights from Jakarta Soekarno-Hatta International Airport to Hong Kong as either check-in luggage or in cargo. The 658 turtles from the first confiscation were taken to KFBG in Hong Kong.

Categorised as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, the rare pig-nosed turtle is a large freshwater turtle that inhabits rivers, lakes and estuaries in the southern lowlands of Papua (Indonesia), Papua New Guinea and the Northern Territories of Australia.

Despite being listed on CITES II, which allows only closely controlled trade, and being protected in all three of its range states, this species is exported illegally in large numbers from Indonesia for the international live animal trade where they are in high demand as exotic pets, food consumption and traditional medicine.

Pig-nosed turtle eggs are harvested by local people in Papua and then incubated for sale as live animals. The hatchlings are sold to traders who can export them to major cities in Java. A small proportion are sold domestically for the pet trade and the rest are shipped internationally via sea or air to satisfy increasing foreign demand. Hong Kong SAR, China and Singapore are suspected to be some of the main destinations. 

Since 2010, more than 35,500 pig-nosed turtles have been confiscated by authorities in Indonesia and Hong Kong in 15 separate incidents. Indonesian authorities were responsible for seizing just under 30,000 individuals in 11 different cases – three of which were known to be destined for Hong Kong. The remainder of the seizure cases occurred in Hong Kong. As those animals rescued in seizures probably only account for a small percentage of the actual trade, the total number of pig-nosed turtles successfully smuggled annually could be huge and pose a serious and imminent threat to the survival of this species.

“The wildlife trade is responsible for decimating hundreds of animal species, some of them on the brink of extinction, but it’s also responsible for the suffering and death of thousands of animals that are taken from their natural habitat,” says Karmele Llano Sanchez, Programme Director of International Animal Rescue Indonesia.

Sanchez goes on to say: “This is just a tiny portion of the rampant illegal wildlife trade that goes on across the globe each year. Millions of animals are hunted, killed, or suffer and die during live transit, just so that they can become someone’s exotic pet, an ornament hanging on a wall, or on a plate as food.”

The pig-nosed turtle seizures highlight Indonesia’s role as a smuggling hub for this unique and rare species, but also Hong Kong’s part in fuelling the demand and its role as a transit route to other parts of China.

Indonesian and Hong Kong authorities should be commended for their vigilance and willingness to act when smuggling attempts are uncovered; however, it is essential that both countries conduct more coordinated and rigorous enforcement efforts to eliminate this frequently used trade route and that the civil society understands their role in the demand.

“Until the civil society realises the extent of the part they play in this lucrative and cruel illegal business when they buy, keep or consume wild animals, we will not be able to stop the illegal wildlife trade that threatens much of the world’s unique biodiversity,” Sanchez concludes.