Turtle trafficking might not be top-of-mind when you think of illegal activity at the airport, but yesterday in Manila, in the Philippines, authorities uncovered a startling number of live turtles and tortoises hidden in four abandoned suitcases in the airport’s arrivals area. 1,529 live turtles and tortoises were spread across four suitcases. They had been bound with duct tape and stuffed between clothes, and it’s suspected that the incident is part of a wider multi-million dollar illegal wildlife smuggling operation.
In a Facebook post by Ninoy Aquino International Airpot’s Bureau of Customs, the luggage had been brought to the airport by a Filipino passenger arriving from Hong Kong before being abandoned. A few species found in the luggage, including the star tortoise and African spurred tortoise, are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
While turtles and tortoises might seem like strange animals to target for smuggling, they are actually huge scores for the illegal wildlife trade. Their meat and body parts are considered delicacies and used as medicine in many parts of Asia, and they are sought-after exotic pets.
Anyone involved in illegal animal trading in the Philippines is subject to a $4,000 fine and up to two years in prison, explains Smithsonian, but the potential payoff is still motivating smugglers to risk it. According to The Guardian, the estimated value of the turtles found in Manila is a staggering $87,000.