Star treatment for 51 Indian tortoises flying home after being trafficked to Singapore

Acres has cared for the Indian star tortoises for more than eight years at its premises in Jalan Lekar in western Singapore.
Acres has cared for the Indian star tortoises for more than eight years at its premises in Jalan Lekar in western Singapore.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

SINGAPORE - Nick, Surya and Takeshi are illegal immigrants who will be put on a plane home on Monday (Nov 26). They have resided in Singapore for years and will now be sent back to their own country for good - on a Singapore Airlines flight, no less.

But why the VIP treatment?

Nick and his friends are three of 51 Indian star tortoises found to have been illegally trafficked here.

This is the largest number of Indian star tortoises - coveted for their star-patterned shells - to be repatriated from Singapore.

Their striking, intricate appearances make them an easy target for poachers, who are often part of organised crime rings that profit from animal trafficking.

The lucky few saved by the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres) are just a fraction of the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 taken from the wild to meet the international demand for exotic pets.

Acres has cared for the tortoises for more than eight years at its premises in Jalan Lekar in western Singapore.


The organisation has spared no expense to provide varied and tailored diets for the tortoises, along with intensive veterinary care and healthy environmental conditions to keep them fit for travel.

Partner organisation Wildlife SOS India will meet the creatures after their 4½ hour flight to Bangalore, India.

They will then be quarantined, monitored, tagged with transmitters and released into a protected reserve in Karnataka state.

"I am relieved that these tortoises are finally coming back to where they belong," said Mr Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder and CEO of Wildlife SOS.

The tortoises were saved from a variety of places in Singapore, such as roadsides, local households where they were ill-treated, and the briefcases of smugglers.

Ms Anbarasi Boopal, deputy chief executive of Acres, said: "The odds never favoured us, but our perseverance and sheer will, together with support from Wildlife SOS India, paved the way for us to repatriate these animals." 

She added that this is not the first time that star tortoises have been repatriated.

The Indian star tortoise is not native to or suited to living in Singapore, as it struggles to cope with the humid environment.

The species is native to Gujarat and Rajasthan in north-western India, and a small area of south-eastern Pakistan, which are cooler, arid regions.

However, according to Acres, they are often kept illegally as pets in Singapore and not cared for properly. Owners often feed them supermarket-bought vegetables, which do not come with the calcium and vitamins required to keep their shells healthy.

Little is known about how to best care for and feed Indian star tortoises, particularly about their diet.

The 51 kept at Acres were fed vegetables and flowers, with additional calcium and vitamin supplements.

The organisation found that some of the tortoises were suffering from soft shells or organ failure, as their shells had not grown big enough to house their bodies.

It cost Acres $6,000 a month to care for the 51 tortoises and another $1,000 per tortoise to send them back to India in a special cargo crate.

The Indian star tortoise is on its way to being listed as "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, one step down from "endangered".

Acres continues to care for other wild species rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, such as red-footed tortoises, pig-nosed turtles, green iguanas, snapping turtles, and sugar gliders, among others.

Acres's Animal Crime Investigation Unit also probes and monitors the illegal wildlife trade in Singapore, working closely with the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority to tackle the issue.