Smuggled tortoises found by customs officials put on exhibit at Cincinnati Zoo

Smuggled tortoises found by customs officials put on exhibit at Cincinnati Zoo
Posted at 11:14 AM, Nov 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-22 04:48:36-05

CINCINNATI -- If the seven Indian Star tortoises now residing at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden could talk, they'd likely have a tale just as good as the one about how slow and steady wins the race.

They'd recount their uncomfortable journey from Malaysia to Ohio disguised as a porcelain doll. That's right, a doll.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers say they held a package manifesting as a doll and addressed to a person in Miami Lakes, Florida, for routine inspection on July 29. 

When officers opened the shipment, they found a plastic container that was taped shut with ventilation holes punched through the top. The container held seven small objects concealed by newspaper bedding and individually wrapped in white cloth that was completely covered by tightly wound packing tape. Officers realized the objects were live tortoises when they started removing the cloth on one of the objects and the animal pushed its leg through the opening.

The reptiles were turned over to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) officials who placed the animals under the care of the Cincinnati Zoo.

“This is a vulnerable species because their population is decreasing,” said CBP Cincinnati Port Director Richard Gillespie. “The successful interception of these seven live tortoises highlights the outstanding work of our officers and our collaborative efforts with the FWS wildlife inspectors at the Port of Louisville, Kentucky to combat illegal wildlife trafficking.”

Indian Star Tortoises are protected under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), but wildlife traders illegally exploit this threatened species in order to meet the international demand for exotic pets. Legal imports of Indian Star tortoises must be accompanied by a CITES Permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The four female and three male tortoises have completed their quarantine period at the Cincinnati Zoo and are currently part of the reptile exhibit. FWS officials are pursuing legal action against the importer.

CBP conducts operations at ports of entry throughout the United States, and regularly screens arriving international passengers and cargo for narcotics, weapons and other restricted or prohibited products.