The Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans), one of the most beautiful tortoises in all of Asia, is sadly disappearing from the Indian landscape. Escalating illegal poaching of the tortoise has led to its rapid decline over the past 20 years. Though there are multiple reasons for the dwindling population, the primary culprits are poachers and smugglers seeking to fulfill the demand of the illegal international pet trade. The magnitude of the problem is staggering.
In recent years, roughly 25,000 star tortoises have been seized each year at Indian airports alone – an astounding number that still represents only a fraction of the tortoises poached from the wild. Once removed from the wild, the future for these beautiful animals is usually grim. However, this does not always have to be the case. This is the story of 51 tortoises saved from the black market and successfully returned to their home in the wilderness. Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, it is possible for Indian star tortoises to survive and thrive into the future.
Indian star tortoises were given their name because of their unique coloration pattern. Each scute of the tortoise’s shell has a yellow dot at its center, with lines radiating outward. This pattern forms an attractive and distinctive star-like appearance. Sadly, this unique beauty makes them the target of the illegal pet trade, and thus the black market. Because of the escalating demand for illegally obtained star tortoises, concern for their survival as a species has mounted.
Protections for the Indian Star Tortoise
As recently as 2000, this reptile was considered a species of Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Indian government listed star tortoises as a Schedule 4 species, meaning they had minimal protection. However, by 2016 it was clear that the numbers of these tortoises still active in the wild were plummeting and that they were being trafficked out of India, mostly illegally, at an alarming rate. For these reasons they were up-listed to Vulnerable by the IUCN. And, in 2019, they were moved from a Schedule 4 species to a Schedule 1 species under Indian law (Wildlife Protection Act 1972). This change gave the star tortoise the same level of protections as tigers and elephants in India.
Also, in 2019, The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) upgraded the tortoises from Appendix 2 to Appendix 1. Appendix 2 is intended for species that are not necessarily immediately threatened with extinction, but traffic and trade of the species needs to be controlled in order to promote their continuing survival. Appendix I, on the other hand, refers to species that are formally threatened with extinction.
Lack of legal protection, the ease of capturing the tortoises, the tortoises’ desirability as pets, and the lucrative payoff for tortoise smugglers created a situation where tens of thousands of these beautiful creatures were trafficked out of India annually. Tortoises were stuffed in luggage and gunny sacks and transported via trains, cars and planes. Therefore, it was no great surprise when 96 star tortoises were confiscated at the Singapore airport by the authorities.
The tortoises, many of which were physically injured and traumatized, were transferred by the Singapore government to a rescue center in Singapore managed by a local NGO, the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES), for immediate medical attention and care. Initially, Singapore’s government considered euthanizing the tortoises, since they were a non-native species. Fortunately, Wildlife SOS founders Geeta Seshamani and Kartick Satyanarayan heard about the tortoises and offered to repatriate them to India and release them back to the wild, if they were fit for release.
Repatriation had never been attempted with this species and appeared to be an ambitious plan, but Wildlife SOS was determined to give it a try. There would certainly be logistical, biological, and even political concerns with executing the plan, but anything was better than euthanizing the tortoises or forcing them to live out their lives in captivity in a foreign land. The best place for these wild-caught animals would be back in their native habitat, where they could contribute to the breeding population in the wild, thus ensuring the next generation of star tortoises.
The Action Plan to Release the Star Tortoises
To execute this plan, Wildlife SOS needed to collaborate with ACRES and the Singapore government. It might seem as though repatriation would be as simple as flying the tortoises back to India and releasing them in a suitable habitat, but the reality was far more complicated. Wildlife SOS needed the approval of the Indian government to even begin the process. Once that was secured, the next steps would be to find the right location to release the tortoises and setting up a soft release pen in that location. Finally, once the tortoises were brought to the release location, it would take several months for them to acclimatize to their native habitat again, after having been in a country with much higher humidity. All of these steps would be necessary to adequately prepare these tortoises to survive in the wild.
The process began with Wildlife SOS bringing a contingent of senior officials from the Indian government, including the chief wildlife warden of Karnataka, to Singapore to examine the tortoises and medically evaluate them for repatriation. It was concluded that only 51 of the 96 tortoises were in good enough health for potential repatriation – the remaining 45 tortoises were unfortunately ineligible due to cracked shells and other ailments. But the good news was that repatriation for the 51 healthy tortoises was a definite possibility. The initial investigations revealed that these particular tortoises originated from the tortoise population native to southern India. That knowledge helped Wildlife SOS focus on collaborating with the Karnataka Forest Department, the location to which they hoped the tortoises could be returned.
Although no Indian star tortoise subspecies are formally recognized, four distinct tortoise populations presently occur in four different areas: Northwestern India, Eastern India, Southern India, and Sri Lanka. The Northwestern population is found in the Indian states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh. These tortoises range all the way out to the southeastern tip of the neighboring country of Pakistan. The tortoises in this population tend to be a bit larger and a bit darker than star tortoises from the other areas mentioned above.
The Eastern population is found in the Indian states of Odisha, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh, and the Southern population in the states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. The star tortoises from these two regions tend to be slightly smaller, but are also thought to be the most attractive of all the tortoise populations, thanks to their shells having more contrasting star-like patterns on the carapace. The Sri Lankan tortoises, meanwhile, sometimes have broader yellow markings and reach larger sizes than tortoises from Southern India.
Known Natural Ecology
Ironically, while a good amount is known about the tortoises’ behavior while in captivity, much of their natural ecology remains a mystery. Indian star tortoises prefer arid and semi-arid habitats, including those in the desert, rocky scrub jungle, grasslands, and sometimes even deciduous forests. Most of the regions in which these tortoises reside have monsoon seasons followed by extensive hot and dry periods. They are generally crepuscular in nature, meaning that they are active in the mornings and evenings, though they can be active at any time of the day or night. Breeding and nesting seasons coincide with the monsoon seasons, and males will compete for females by flipping each other over. Generally, the females produce two clutches of eggs per year. Each clutch is comprised of two to 10 eggs that are buried in the dirt. Star tortoises are primarily herbivores and eat grasses, leaves, fruits, and flowers; however, they have been known to also consume insects, dung, and even carrion. Presently, not much is known about the home ranges or movement patterns of this species.
Permits, Paperwork and Repatriation
Keeping all that they knew about star tortoise populations and ecology in mind, Wildlife SOS worked closely with the Karnataka State Forest Department, and the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change, as well as the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (CITES India) to procure all required permits and paperwork for the repatriations. Wildlife SOS also placed several teams on the ground in the Karnataka Forest to make adequate preparations for the tortoises’ homecoming. This project was no small task and took more than 14 months to complete. As the tortoises’ homecoming drew nearer, specialized transport boxes were created to carry the animals safely and with the least amount of stress. Thankfully, Singapore Airlines was supportive of the repatriation effort and subsidized flight tickets for veterinarians, caregivers, and biologists – and they also flew the tortoises for free. The tortoises arrived in Karnataka, India on November 18.
Clearing the tortoises through customs was a time consuming process. After they had finally been cleared, the tortoises were transported to the Bannerghatta National Park, where they were quarantined as per the directions of the chief wildlife warden. This location initially seemed perfect not just for quarantining the tortoises, but for fully repatriating them. Bannerghatta National Park is part of the Indian star tortoise’s natural habitat, and Wildlife SOS team was conveniently located nearby, as they run the Bannerghatta Sloth Bear Rescue Centre on the national park’s border. However, there were concerns that wild elephants, which are relatively common in the park, would destroy the tortoises’ pens and potentially inadvertently injure the tortoises. Therefore, once the tortoises finished their quarantine, they were moved to the soft release site location, the Ramdurga Reserve Forest in the Koppal District of North Karnataka.
Ramdurga Reserve Forest Soft Release
Ramdurga Reserve Forest is a beautiful location on the Deccan Plateau. The habitat is comprised of rocky scrub forest, thorn forest, and dry deciduous forest. The climate is semi-arid and characterized by hot summers from April to June and low rainfall from June to November. The protected habitats in the area are island habitats interspersed with agriculture and boulder fields, and are home to a variety of wildlife species including the sloth bear, leopards, rusty spotted cats, jungle cats, the Indian boar, the Indian crested porcupine, otters, the ruddy mongoose, and the Indian hare. The forest is also not far from Hampi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hampi was the capital of the prosperous Vijaya Nagar Empire of the 14th century, and today is a popular tourist destination for people to explore and experience ancient ruins. Rock climbers also flock to the area because of its unique rock formations. Plus, Hampi is a pilgrimage center for the Hindu religion. All of these protections guaranteed that the habitat of the Ramdurga Reserve Forest would be preserved for generations to come.
Wildlife SOS established a wildlife research field station bordering Ramdurga Reserve Forest, making the forest an ideal location to keep the tortoises in a soft release pen and eventually released them back to the wild. A large forested pen was created just behind the field station. The field station is also a base for many of the animal protection services Wildlife SOS provides, including anti-poaching patrols, outreach to local communities, the forest nursery, and research on sloth bears and other local wildlife. Long before the star tortoise repatriation project had begun, Wildlife SOS had set up camera traps in the area to collect images of bears. These cameras collected several photos and videos of star tortoises in the area, proving that it was a natural repatriation site. Today, the Wildlife SOS field station now also functions as the Indian Star Tortoise Repatriation project base.
Once the tortoises arrived at the site, they appeared to know they were home. Staff noted that their activity levels increased while in their new pen. The soft release enclosure had an abundance of native natural vegetation, shade, water, and food to allow the tortoises to acclimatize. After several months of living in the soft release pens, the tortoises were deemed ready to be fully released back into the wild. Two final decisions had to be made: the best time to release the tortoises, and how many tortoises should be released. The timing was important because it would impact the tortoises’ ease of adjustment and increase the odds of their survival and eventual thriving in the new habitat. The team decided the month of November would be the best time to release the tortoises. The monsoons would be over, and the climate would be ideal for the tortoises to easily find food. The team also determined that not all of the tortoises would be released at once. In order to ensure the tortoises were successful, only 12 of them would be selected for the first release round.
The day was quickly approaching for the first group of tortoises to be released. The first group would be released with transmitters fitted to their carapace, so they could be actively monitored to provide a better understanding of the repatriation’s success. The success of these tortoises would have implications for all tortoises attempting to be returned to the wild. Twelve very healthy tortoises were chosen from the group and fitted with transmitters. Wildlife SOS planned to check on the tortoises several times a week, at a minimum, while collecting data on their movement and monitoring their general health.
On November 18, 2020, the first 12 tortoises were released back into the wild. The small team of veterinarians, biologists, and technicians broke into applause as the tortoises walked out of their pens and reclaimed their freedom in the wild. One small step for a tortoise, and hopefully one giant step for tortoise kind.
Over the following days, as Wildlife SOS monitored them, the tortoises made their way across the scrubby terrain. Within the first week, one tortoise had to be retrieved and brought back to its pen due to a technical issue with the transmitter. Luckily, the rest of the transmitters were functioning well – as were the tortoises themselves. As weeks passed with no further technical or tortoise issues, the team exhaled a bit. The remaining eleven tortoises were doing well. The expectation, based on conversations with tortoise experts, was that the tortoises were likely to move quite a bit in the first few weeks, but then settle down into a relatively small area. So far, this expectation was holding true. After an initial sprint (if you can call it that – these are tortoises, after all), some of the tortoises did start to move less as they appeared to be settling into an area.
In April, summer arrived, with daily temperatures reaching over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The Wildlife SOS team worried about the summer heat and the potential ensuing lack of food. Yet, all 11 tortoises weathered the heat just fine. The weeks melted into months, and finally the monsoons hit. Monsoon season brought cooler temperatures and an abundance of food. Monsoon season is also breeding time for star tortoises, and while there is no evidence of the repatriated tortoises breeding in the wild just yet, Wildlife SOS did document one of the female tortoises being followed by a wild male, so there is reason to be optimistic. It has now been a year since the first group of tortoises were released, and all eleven of them are thriving.
Unfortunately, the original plan of having the remaining tortoises released within the same year as the initial release group was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The ensuing lockdowns made it nearly impossible to coordinate properly with the forest department. However, the tortoises in the transitional pens are doing well, and their health is continuing to improve. Based on the early results of the tortoise monitoring, there is every reason to be optimistic that the remaining tortoises will also flourish when the time finally comes to return them to the wilderness.
The future of the Indian star tortoise looks much brighter than it did only a few years ago. When the star tortoises in this story were smuggled to Singapore, their species enjoyed far fewer legal protections. But, by the time they returned to their native soil, things had changed for the better for star tortoises. The Indian government’s increased protection levels, along with the new designation from CITES will certainly help to curb the poaching of the species. The fight is still a long way from over, but the winds have shifted. The repatriation of these tortoises to India, and the successful reintroduction of 11 tortoises to the wild (hopefully to be followed by reintroduction of 40 more), gives hope that there is real potential to return these tortoises back to the wild even after they have been poached. Large scale repatriation of Indian star tortoises may be a real factor in saving this species from going extinct.