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Study on Illicit Trade of Tortoises and Turtles


A study titled ‘From Pets to Plates’ sheds light on the illicit trade of tortoises and hard-shell turtles, carried out by experts from the Counter Wildlife Trafficking Programme of the Wildlife Conservation Society-India.


GS III: Environment and Ecology

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Key Findings of the Report on Tortoise and Turtle Trafficking
  2. Tortoises and Turtles

Key Findings of the Report on Tortoise and Turtle Trafficking

  • Primary Trafficking Node: Chennai serves as the central hub in the illicit trade network of tortoises and hard-shell turtles, facilitating the global pet trade.
  • Other Significant Cities: Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Anantapur, Agra, North 24 Parganas (West Bengal), and Howrah (near India-Bangladesh border) also play crucial roles in the trafficking network for these reptiles.
  • Soft-Shell Turtle Trafficking: The trafficking of soft-shell turtles is mainly domestic, with limited international trafficking to and from India, primarily involving Bangladesh.
  • Asian Turtle Crisis: Many threatened tortoises and freshwater turtle species in India, including Indian flapshell turtles, face severe threats due to illegal trade for pets, food, and medicinal purposes.
  • Species Under Threat: At least 15 out of the 30 threatened Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles (TFT) species in India are illegally traded.
  • Focus on Freshwater Species: The Indian Softshell turtle, found in the Ganges, Indus, and Mahanadi rivers, is particularly in demand in illegal markets.
  • Trafficking Networks: The tortoise and hard-shell turtle trafficking network has a broader geographical scope with more international links compared to the soft-shell turtle network.
  • Complex Routes: Tortoise and hard-shell turtle smuggling involve complex routes, while soft-shell turtle trafficking generally follows a one-directional route from source to destination.
  • Poor Conditions: Trafficked turtles often arrive dehydrated, starved, and injured, resulting in high mortality rates. This underscores the urgency of addressing the issue.

Tortoises and Turtles

Tortoises and turtles are both reptiles belonging to the order Testudines, but they are distinct in several ways, primarily related to their habitat, physical characteristics, and behavior. Here are some key differences between tortoises and turtles:


  • Tortoises are primarily land-dwelling reptiles. They are adapted for a terrestrial lifestyle and are typically found in dry, arid regions, such as deserts and grasslands.
  • Turtles, on the other hand, are generally aquatic or semi-aquatic reptiles. They are often found in various aquatic habitats, including ponds, lakes, rivers, and oceans, although some species may also venture onto land.

Limb Shape:

  • Tortoises have sturdy, column-like legs with sharp claws. These adaptations are designed for walking on land and digging burrows.
  • Turtles have webbed feet or flippers, which are adapted for swimming in water. Their limbs are typically more flattened and paddle-like.

Shell Characteristics:

  • Tortoises have high-domed, heavy shells that provide protection against predators and the harsh environment of their terrestrial habitats.
  • Turtles generally have flatter, streamlined shells that aid in swimming. The shape of the shell can vary depending on their specific habitat and lifestyle.


  • Tortoises are usually slow-moving creatures and spend most of their lives on land. They are herbivorous and feed on plants and vegetation.
  • Turtles are more agile in the water and are often excellent swimmers. They have a more varied diet, including aquatic plants, insects, and small prey depending on the species.


  • Both tortoises and turtles lay eggs, but the nesting habits can differ. Tortoises typically dig burrows to lay their eggs on land, while many turtles lay their eggs in sandy beaches or other suitable locations near water.


  • Both tortoises and turtles can live for a long time, but tortoises tend to have longer lifespans. Some tortoise species can live for over a century, while turtles often have a lifespan of several decades.


  • Tortoises are often found in specific regions around the world, such as the deserts of North America, Africa, and Asia.
  • Turtles are more widespread and can be found in various aquatic environments globally, from freshwater ponds to saltwater oceans.

-Source: The Hindu

June 2024