SINGAPORE: In about a month, 50 Indian star tortoises that were rescued from the illegal wildlife trade in Singapore will embark on their journey back home to India.
It is Singapore's biggest mass repatriation of rescued animals to date.
The tortoises are being cared for at a wildlife rescue centre run by animal welfare group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES), which is closely monitoring them for any health abnormalities ahead of the long trip.
The tortoises will take a four-and-a-half-hour flight to Bangalore in India, where they will be transported to a protected area in Karnataka state for a month-long quarantine before they are released into the wild. They have been microchipped to allow wildlife experts there to continue monitoring them.
The project took two years to hatch and the ACRES team is determined to make it a success.
“They have been poached from the wild and smuggled in to meet the demands of the pet trade; many of them actually die. These are more or less the lucky ones who survived this ordeal and I think they truly deserve a second chance to be back in the wild,” said deputy chief executive Anbarasi Boopal.
She added that repatriation was in the best interests of the wild animals, as it is “often impossible” to meet all their complex needs in captivity.
For example, the temperature and humidity in Singapore are not suitable for the tortoises, so caregivers would need to provide heat lamps or a dry spot for them to hide.
“The humidity in Singapore is actually very high for their needs and it does not suit their requirement. They definitely don’t belong in this space, so they need to go back home,” said Ms Boopal.
The Indian star tortoise is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Yet, it remains one of the most widely trafficked tortoise species in the world due to its striking yellow and black shell, which features a unique star-like radiating pattern.
In Singapore, the star tortoises are among the five most common types of illegal wildlife seized by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA), along with hedgehogs, ball pythons, sugar gliders and leopard geckos.
AVA investigated an average of 21 cases of illegal CITES and non-CITES live wildlife each year over the past five years. It has dealt with 13 cases up until mid-April this year.
REPATRIATION NOT AN EASY PROCESS
The upcoming repatriation of the Indian star tortoises is the country’s most ambitious project to date, to bring home some of the animals that were caught up in the illegal wildlife trade.
ACRES last sent six reptiles - four giant Asian turtles and two elongated tortoises - back to Malaysia in April. Its first successful reptile repatriation was for a Malaysian giant turtle named Rahayu early last year.
But according to ACRES, the repatriation process is not an easy one.
Ms Boopal told Channel NewsAsia that it has to first determine if the animals are fit for release into the wild.
It then has to source for a suitable release site, work with partners from the receiving country and apply for permits to transport the animals across borders.
The entire process could take months or years and has often fallen through.
"It requires a lot of communication between different countries and different governments. So quite often, rescue centres, zoos, agencies and NGOs that are involved in repatriation need to sit down and discuss how the programme is going to transpire, and the successes around it,” said Dr Jessica Lee, who is senior manager for conservation, research and veterinary services at Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS).
She added that countries may also hesitate to take the animal back if the species is not considered a conservation priority.
There is also the risk of disease transmission for all animals – whether they were smuggled in or not.
Citing the example of the Javan mynah, which is commonly found in Singapore, Dr Lee said: “If we don’t know the disease status of animals in the country where they are introduced, and the original country, we cannot move birds easily and simply.
“The last thing we want to do is to move birds that are carrying a disease into Indonesia, or any country, that will introduce the disease into native populations in the country of origin. That may have (a) negative impact on those populations.”
But the biggest hurdle to overcome is financing.
“Funding is pretty much one of the reasons repatriation is not the first option," Dr Lee said. "Quite often, many countries may not have the expertise, the time or the financial resources to carry out the programme.”
ACRES' upcoming project, for example, will set it back by S$60,000 – an amount it is still trying to raise.
So what happens if repatriation is not an option?
Many of these animals could end up living out their lives at ACRES or WRS, which is the designated centre for rescued wildlife in Singapore.
“We will try our best to absorb the animal in question into our collection and give them the best standard of care possible, with the hopes that we can put them back in the wild in the future,” said Dr Lee.
The animal could also form part of the Singapore Zoo’s breeding programme, or become the face of its educational campaign to raise awareness of the illegal wildlife trade.
The rescue facilities are concerned that illegal online trade could feed a growing appetite for exotic animals. Already, ACRES is seeing an increase in the number of online advertisements selling illegal wildlife.
This could put the animals under threat, more than ever.