MANILA: Philippine authorities on Sunday (Mar 3) seized more than 1,500 live tortoises that were found in abandoned luggage at Manila's Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
The reptiles were taped and stuffed into four suitcases that also contained snacks and clothing.
Authorities believe the suitcases were left behind by a Filipino passenger who had arrived on flight PR311 from Hong Kong.
“The passenger may have been informed of the vigilance of Bureau of Customs against illegal wildlife trade and its penalties, thus leaving the four X-rayed luggage unclaimed in the arrival area,” said the airport's Bureau of Customs in a Facebook post
The passenger fled before authorities could confront him, customs officials said.
"We saw the images from the X-ray (machine)," Manila airport customs chief Carmelita Talusan told the AFP news agency.
"We never expected it would reach as many as 1,530 ... Our staff were taking care not to hurt them because duct tape was used to immobilise the (animals)," Talusan said.
The tortoises seized are worth 4.5 million pesos (US$86,870), said the bureau. They included species such as the Star Tortoise, Redfoot Tortoise and Sulcata Tortoise.
The Indian Star Tortoise is classified as "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Those found guilty of illegal wildlife trading face up to two years’ jail and a maximum fine of 200,000 pesos.
Photos posted by the bureau show the tortoises individually taped up with what appears to be silver duct tape.
Several smaller tortoises were also packed into plastic containers which were also taped shut.
The animals have been handed over to Department of Environment and Natural Resources' Wildlife Traffic Monitoring Unit, said the bureau.
The confiscated reptiles were likely destined to be sold in the Philippines or smuggled to other countries using false documents, environment officials said.
"It's for business purposes ... It's such a lucrative business. There are buyers and collectors who treat them as pets," environment undersecretary Benny Antiporda told AFP.
"We are stepping up our all-out drive against the black market of endangered species."
Sunday's haul was the latest in a series of seizures of smuggled wildlife at the capital's airport.
More than 50 iguanas were discovered in the luggage of a passenger from Bangkok last month, with some of the animals hidden in water bottles and socks.
The Philippines is a major source and transit point of wildlife trafficking, according to a 2018 report by the US State Department.