Over 1,500 turtles have been rescued from luggage left at a Philippines airport.
It’s not something you expect to see as a customs official working at any airport, but officials working at Manilla’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport had to deal with suitcases filled to the brim with turtles on Sunday.
Four suitcases, each containing both household items as well as hundreds upon hundreds of turtles, were rescued after Philippine customs officials noticed something strange about several abandoned pieces of luggage. Upon cracking open each case, they found a strange mass of turtles all bound in duct tape to keep them from squirming too much inside.
According to the Associated Press, customs officials traced the baggage to a Filipino passenger who’d arrived from Hong Kong on a Philippines Air flight. It’s unknown if authorities have since caught up with the apparent turtle-smuggler after their arrival in the country.
For the turtles at least, the story has a happy ending. They were handed over to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Wildlife Traffic Monitoring Unit, which will then find new homes for the 1,529 reptiles.
This strange occurrence is apparently a case of turtle smuggling gone wrong. Turtles are big business in Asian cuisine as the creatures are thought to confer health benefits and added longevity. A National Geographic report calls the illegal turtle trade a multi-million dollar business, with suitcases filled with turtles passing through Asian airports frequently.
Criminal networks will often poach turtles in locations where there is an abundance, such as India or North America, and then smuggle the creatures by plane.
In the Philippines, wildlife smuggling comes with a maximum penalty of 2 years behind bars and up to 200,000 pesos in fines (roughly $3832 USD).
Last year, Philippine customs reported turning over 560 examples of smuggled wildlife to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, including 250 geckos and 260 pieces of coral. Most of these creatures were smuggled in parcels, baggage, or aircraft luggage.