When officers at a busy Asian airport found five suspicious suitcases, they knew they had to look inside. So they began to carefully unzip the cargo. However, they had no idea that what lay inside would break their hearts.
Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport is one of South East Asia’s main transport hubs. More than 52 million people made their way through the facility in 2016, making it one of the top 25 busiest airports on the planet when it comes to the passenger traffic.
As a result, staff at the airport are kept very busy. After all, not only do they have to get their customers from A to B, but they must also look out for any suspicious behavior. Sometimes, however, members of the public assist them in their work.
Occasionally, security or customs staff at the airport receive tip-offs about suspicious passengers or cargo – which is exactly what happened in May 2017. Yes, a member of the public contacted customs officials to warn them about some suspicious items in an airport warehouse.
The dubious haul in question had arrived at the airport on board an Etihad Airways flight from Madagascar’s Ivato International Airport in Antananarivo. Whoever had shipped the cargo had labeled the items as “stones.” However, as customs were about to find out, they were anything but.
Following the tip-off, staff began searching one of the warehouses on the airport’s premises. It was there that customs agents found the five boxes of “stones,” labeled with false addresses. And when officials looked inside the crates, they found that each one contained a single suitcase.
The search team subsequently lifted out the items of luggage and began to open them up. However, nothing could have prepared them for what they were about to find. Inside the suitcases were no fewer than 330 ploughshare and radiated tortoises – both species that are under threat of extinction.
“It is a big haul. It could be for the local market or for re-export. We are investigating,” a customs official confirmed in a statement. “Based on [a] public tip-off, customs officials raided the cargo area of the airport and found five suspicious crates.”
Wildlife traffickers often attempt to smuggle both of the species of tortoise that were found at the airport. That’s despite the fact that both ploughshare and radiated tortoises are protected in Malaysia, as the country’s laws expressly prohibit the importation of such animals. Some people are still willing, however, to buy the animals as pets or even for use as food items.
In fact, such is the threat to these species that the International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies both kinds of tortoise as critically endangered. Today, there are around just 200 fully grown ploughshare tortoises left in the wild – making them one of the rarest species on earth. The number of radiated tortoises, meanwhile, is also falling.
The haul that airport officials had found would have in fact been worth around £214,000 ($277,000) on the black market. Luckily, though, they got to the animals in time. And all of the smuggled reptiles were found alive and well – albeit in a state of sedation.
According to customs official Abdull Wahid Sulong, Kuala Lumpur International Airport has never found a haul of tortoises that big before. “We’ve had five similar cases since 2015,” he explained in May 2017, according to Malaysian newspaper The Star. “Smugglers either bring them in smaller quantities through hand carry luggage or smuggle them through post.”
Police have not yet made any arrests in relation to the discovery. However, if the culprits are caught, they could be charged with importing critically endangered animals. And should they be found guilty, the smugglers could face a three-year prison sentence, according to Malaysian law.
Unfortunately, though, the rare tortoises were just the latest in a string of illegally trafficked animals discovered at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. That same month, police also seized millions of dollars worth of African pangolin scales, while in April 2017 staff found rhino horns to the value of £2.4 million ($3.1 million).
“We are very serious about tackling wildlife crime involving Malaysia,” Sulong explained in a press conference. “Especially through KLIA [Kuala Lumpur International Airport]. We are calling on the public to share information on this case via our hotline.”
And the airport’s crackdown has pleased many people who work in animal conservation. Among them is TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network that works globally to combat the illegal pet trade. By keeping a close eye on worldwide animal transportation, they hope to aid the conservation of endangered species like the ploughshare and radiated tortoises.
“The string of seizures certainly shows that Malaysian customs means business,” Kanitha Krishnasamy from the organization said in a statement. “TRAFFIC is glad to see this action against organized criminal wildlife trafficking.”
However, the network does have its concerns. “It’s worrying that shipments headed for Southeast Asia from Africa via the Middle East are only detected in the region,” Krishnasamy said. “It clearly points towards the need for greater scrutiny at airports both at points of origin and at transit points such as Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.”
Another TRAFFIC spokesperson, Dr. Chris R. Shepherd, added that he’d like to see the captured tortoises returned home. “The thoughtless greed of those buying these animals is driving ploughshare tortoises to extinction,” he said. “It is vital that highly threatened seized tortoises, especially ploughshare tortoises, are repatriated to Madagascar.”
So while there’s no easy answer to the illegal animal trafficking problem, it looks like those at Kuala Lumpur International Airport are heading in the right direction. Every suspicious haul seized sends a clear message to wildlife traders that their actions won’t be tolerated.