Seychelles investigates how 72 Aldabra giant tortoises were smuggled to Spain
(Seychelles News Agency) - Seychelles’ environment authorities are working to determine the exact circumstances under which a man smuggled 72 live Aldabra giant tortoises - still in their infancy stage - through Barcelona airport with the intention of trafficking them.
“It is not clear whether they were taken from the Seychelles, although we know that these species originate from Seychelles,” the principal secretary of the Department of Environment, Dennis Matatiken, told the SNA on Thursday.
This follows a story published on the digital platform El Periodico de Catalunya – the sixth largest publication in Spain.
According to El Periodico, an unnamed Italian man was arrested at the El Prat airport around 10:30 am on April 5, 2019, travelling from Seychelles.
After he was stopped and his luggage searched 72 giant Aldabra tortoises were found in his hand luggage "without being in possession or being able to obtain any import, export or possession permit that could legally protect" their possession and subsequent trade, as established by international conventions on the trade of threatened species or the regulations of the European Union”, said El Periodico.
The man is currently being tried in court, with the Spanish authorities demanding that he be sentenced to “a total of five and a half years in prison and a fine of €350,000 for smuggling of protected fauna and integration in a criminal group”. His wife and mother-in-law are also being charged together with the man – although the prosecution is asking for a more lenient sentence of eight months in prison and a fine.
The Aldabra giant tortoise, an endemic species of Seychelles - an archipelago in the western Indian Ocean - are listed as a vulnerable species. The species play an important role in the ecosystem of the islands as they are important grazers, disperse seeds, and they move and fertilise the soil.
The Aldabra Atoll, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is home to more than 100,000 giant land tortoises.
Speaking to SNA, Matatiken explained that once the authorities can determine “who the person is and what flight he was caught on” so that "we can then liaise with the Department of Immigration to determine if the person left the country with the tortoises”.
The authorities say that once all the information is established, only then will it be able “to take the necessary action”.
At the moment passengers leaving the country’s luggage are scanned at the airport – which is why Matatiken explained that in the past people have been caught trying to smuggle coco de mer nuts by customs officers.
Matatiken conceded, however, that there are many scenarios through which the tortoises could have left the small island states’ borders undetected.
“There is another option that I may take a tortoise from Seychelles and hop on board a yacht and go to Madagascar,” he explained.
“From then I take a flight to another destination, and this is when things like that will not feature on the radar as I did not go through the system,” he elaborated.
With an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 1.4 million square kilometres, the Matatiken admits that “it is difficult to control each and every boat that leaves Mahe as people don’t always disclose or declare everything on a yacht”.
The other way the authorities fear the tortoises may be smuggled is as there are people who legally breed the species – both in Seychelles and elsewhere.
The Department of Environment issues permits to breeders who later export the baby tortoises – who fall within the requirements of measuring up to 30 cm at the time of exportation.
In addition to the required length of the tortoises, breeders are also provided their quotas of the species.
“Everyone must follow the procedures in order to get their proper certifications and relevant documents,” said Matatiken.
“We have records of the tortoises that are exported as the people in the field have to ask for permission to do so…If someone does something outside the existing system, this is when it becomes tricky for us to keep tabs,” he concluded.