A problem to solve
pet Hermann's tortoise (Testudo hermanni)
When I first read about the MRes that this blog is set to follow, I must admit that one of my first thoughts was-- ‘Illegally imported tortoises? Really? How much of an issue can this possibly be?’--Yet it turns out that alongside rhino horn and elephant ivory, tortoises are one of the big concerns in wildlife trade regulation.

The tortoise trade
Tortoises are a popular pet in many countries including the UK, though perhaps not one of the first animals that spring to mind on hearing the word ‘pet’.  But then when I think about it I do vaguely remember wanting a tortoise when I was younger - maybe Blue Peter and the wonderful George had something to do with it.  My parents had a pet tortoise.  Someone down the road had one that ran away.  And my Grandad wrote a story about one.

In fact thousands are imported every year.  There are breeders in the UK and in mainland Europe, but there is no way they can currently satisfy the market.  The numbers for some species are quite shocking and I’m left wondering how wild populations can possibly sustain such trade. According to CITES data over 200,000 Horsfield’s tortoises (Testudo horsfieldii) have been exported from Uzbekistan alone in the last five years, with over 30,000 of them coming to the UK; all of them wild-caught or ranched.  Horsfield’s tortoise is currently listed as vulnerable on the IUCN red list - it ‘is facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future’.  Although much of this trade is legal, beyond expert opinion there seems to be precious little that can be done to validify claims of origin.

Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoises (Testudo graeca) and Hermann’s tortoises (Testudo hermanni) are also traded in large numbers even though all trade of wild caught and ranched individuals of these species is illegal under CITES regulations.  Accordingly, neither species can legally be traded without Article 10 certificates, on which origin is recorded.  Unfortunately these certificates are not specimen specific until the tortoise reaches a size at which it can be safely microchipped - so it is possible to pass a wild caught tortoise off as captive bred through the use of fraudulently obtained Article 10s.  Worryingly, in a study by the RSPCA it was reported that Testudo graeca could be bought for as little as £1 on market stalls in Marrakech - and I have heard similar reports about other markets.  People who buy these animals may or may not know that they are breaking the law by doing so, but such animals can make a very tidy profit, going for as much as £200 if sold as captive bred. 

Where did it really come from?
With less commonly bred species such as the popular Indian star tortoise (Geochelene elegans), it is possible to check claims of captive breeding using DNA tests to check parentage.  But with high volume species like spur-thighed and Hermann’s the cost and logistics of this become prohibitive.  This is where my study steps in:  Stable Isotope Analysis (SIA) is relatively cheap and looks promising as a tool to confirm claims of origin. 

As this tool has not been used for tortoises before, a major aim of my study is to provide proof of concept.  I will therefore be starting small, developing a sampling protocol and checking that SIA can be used to distinguish between UK and imported tortoises. 

SIA has huge potential in the field of wildlife trade regulation but is largely untapped.  If it can be used successfully on tortoises (and there are multiple reasons why it might not) the possibilities seem almost endless. 

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