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A supposedly 'captive-bred' Testudo - we don't  think so

We thought we had seen the last of it over 15 years ago. Pet stores, garden centers and back-door dealers offering Mediterranean tortoises in bulk. Unfortunately, we were wrong. The Mediterranean tortoise trade is back.

For many years after the initial 1984 import ban, a steady trickle of illegally collected wild caught animals continued to appear. Most of these animals were quite literally smuggled into the UK and Europe from Morocco, Tunisia and other localities such as Turkey. While disturbing, the volume of animals remained relatively low. Most were sold by private small adverts in newspapers – although several of the more unscrupulous ‘specialist reptile dealers’ were also heavily implicated. Occasionally, a smuggler or dealer would be detected and prosecuted, although sadly, most got away with it. Now, however, a far more effective and profitable scam seems to have been developed. One with even less risk of being caught, and one designed to mislead responsible would-be tortoise keepers who insist on purchasing only animals bred in captivity.

Very large numbers of tortoises, both Testudo graeca and Testudo hermanni (including the extremely vulnerable Western subspecies, Testudo hermanni hermanni) are flooding the market. These animals are described as “captive bred” and are accompanied by CITES documents giving their origin as either ‘Slovenia’ or ‘Lebanon’. Similarly highly suspect animals accompanied by French, German and Belgian paperwork are also in circulation.

It is worth examining what ‘captive-bred’ actually means within the context of CITES. To qualify as a ‘captive-bred’ animal, certain very strict conditions must be fulfilled in their entirety:

  • The animals must be born in a controlled environment.

The parental breeding stock must:

  • Have been established in a manner not detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild
  • Must be maintained without addition of animals from the wild.
  • Must be managed in a manner that has been demonstrated to be capable of reliably producing second-generation offspring (F2) in a controlled environment.

There are many reasons for concluding that these particular animals do not meet these requirements. Firstly, it takes a considerable time to establish a captive group capable of reliably producing F2 generations. In the case of the species involved in this instance, one would estimate that it would take an absolute minimum of 10-12 years. You cannot establish an F2 breeding program overnight. 15 years would probably be a more realistic timescale to achieve reliable and consistent F2 breeding with Testudo graeca and Testudo hermanni. There is absolutely no evidence that any such programs existed even 5 years ago. Let alone 10 to 15 years ago.

One must also question the origins of the breeding stock. This is especially worrying in the case of Testudo hermanni hermanni. This race is under serious pressure, and populations are declining sharply throughout its very limited range in Spain, France and Italy. Illegal collecting remains a very serious problem. The question that must be asked – and answered – is where did the Testudo hermanni hermanni breeding stock that is being used in these alleged ‘captive breeding’ operations come from? Was it legally acquired? Was it acquired without damage to already fragile wild populations?  If not, then a fundamental breach of the requirements that must be met before a captive-bred origin can be claimed has occurred.

Similar questions as to the origin of the parental stock involved in the Lebanese export trade must also be addressed.

Close examination of many of these animals also throws considerable doubt that they are genuinely ‘bred in captivity’ in accordance with the legal requirements for claiming such an origin. There are forensic clues that suggest otherwise. One problem is that they are typically heavily infested with parasites, and many are in very poor condition. Others can be shown to be carriers of Herpes virus. This is not suggestive of the output of a well-managed breeding program.

It is perfectly true that the tortoises is question are being sold accompanied by CITES certificates. Does this make them legal, then? No. If the basis upon which those certificates were obtained was false, the certificates are invalid. According to CITES officials:

“False declarations of the source ‘bred in captivity’ constitute the second most common type of fraud”.

Note the use of the term “fraud”. On the basis of the evidence available to date, that is precisely what we believe is taking place here, and until reliable evidence to the contrary is produced we would advise all Tortoise Trust members, and anyone else who genuinely cares about the conservation of tortoises, not to part with money for these animals. In all likelihood, your money  - given in good faith – is ending up in the pockets of a string of shady dealers and middlemen before eventually funding yet further plundering of wild tortoise populations. If you must buy a tortoise, do so directly from a person who has bred them personally, and can demonstrate to you that they have a genuine and viable breeding colony. All good breeders keep records. Ask to see them. Check that the breeder has sufficient adults to produce the quantity of offspring being offered for sale.

We made strenuous efforts to prove or disprove these claims of a captive-bred origin for these tortoises, including contacting reputable reptile societies in the regions of alleged origin.  On contacting the Conservation Committee of the Slovenian Herpetological Society, for example, we were told that they had “no knowledge” of any commercial captive breeding programs in their country. Given that it takes many years to establish such a program, it is, in our view, practically inconceivable that anything of the sort could exist without that fact being common knowledge among those who have specialist knowledge of herpetological activities within the region.

The numbers being cited are also cause for grave concern. One well-known dealer stated that he could easily obtain “5,000 tortoises a year with certificates”. There is, in our opinion, absolutely no way that this quantity could possibly be bred commercially within Europe. We find it far more interesting that the two countries most frequently involved, Lebanon and Slovenia, are better known for the ready availability of fraudulent CITES documentation than they are for genuine captive-breeding expertise!

It is not only tortoises that are suffering from this insidious trade. Genuine keepers involved in captive breeding are seeing their own animals passed over in favor of these readily available imports. Many people have invested years of effort in establishing genuine, high quality captive breeding operations. Such animals cannot be produced cheaply. They certainly cannot compete with unscrupulous ‘ranching’ operations that in no way meet the legal definition of ‘captive bred’.

One particular reptile shop was retailing Mediterranean tortoises complete with CITES certificates stating that the animals were ‘captive-bred’ in Sierra Leone!!!  Astoundingly, the ‘experts’ at the shop in question failed to note anything unusual in this!!! Sierra Leone is of course in West Africa, where no Testudo occur and where there is no significant captive population either. The DETR (now DEFRA) also missed this frighteningly obvious defect in the certificates they were signing.

We are astonished that CITES Management Authorities have accepted these dubious claims for a ‘captive bred’ origin in the first place. All of the evidence available to us (as well as a good dose of common sense) indicates that something is seriously wrong. We have made representations to the effect that we believe that all further import applications for large numbers of allegedly captive bred tortoises should be declined until such time as the dealers can produce convincing evidence that such claims are absolutely genuine. As things stand, the UK CITES management seems to be demanding that the Tortoise Trust prove beyond doubt that the claims are false. We do not think that is the right way to go about this. We also fail to see why not one single dealer we have approached has been able to provide any information at all about these so-called ‘captive breeding programs’ in Slovenia or the Lebanon.

Why? What is the difficulty? If true, this is something dealers and importers should be very proud of! Instead, they prefer to evade all relevant questions. Suspicious? We think so. Action is needed urgently to curb this growing fraud and increased level of exploitation, or already threatened populations will be completely wiped out.