Trafficking of Moroccan Tortoises
International demand has created an intense market in animal trade, much of it illegal, leading to far more pressure than populations of many species can handle. Trafficking and other human activities now directly or indirectly threaten half the world’s turtle species (Kiester and Olson 2011). One such species in Morocco is the spur-thighed tortoise, Testudo graeca.
Pressures on the spur-thighed tortoise include medicinal use within Morocco, harvest for tourist souvenirs, and collection for the domestic and international pet trade.
Turtles and tortoises are sometimes used in traditional medicine and magic, but they are thought to be unclean for eating under Islamic tradition due to coprophagous or dung-eating habits. However, people supposedly eat their eggs or flesh to cure stomach ailments or fever, a widespread practice throughout North Africa and the Middle East, and they use their blood to cure warts (Highfield and Bayley 1999). They may also be used for trembling hands, insomnia, and anxiety (Akhmisse 2000).
Although nobody collects official statistics for use of reptiles in the souvenir trade, one study in the mid-1990s collected information on tortoise parts found in souvenirs in the coastal city of Agadir, a major tourist destination. Two decorative products made from tortoise shells were prevalent: fire-bellows and banjo-like instruments with the carapace as a resonator (Highfield and Bayley 1996). These items are not traditional, and therefore represent tortoise derived products made exclusively for the tourist trade, bought by foreigners who may know nothing of international regulations on export of the species or its parts.
People around the world perceive that turtles and tortoises make good pets; therefore, it is common especially for children to keep captured turtles as pets or to buy them from pet stores. A study in southeastern Spain quantified the non-commercial collection of spur-thighed tortoises as pets in and around the animal’s native Spanish range. It turned out that 64.5% of 796 schoolchildren surveyed kept (currently or previously) one or more of the reptiles at home, and that most tortoises had been collected directly from wild populations rather than bought in pet stores (Perez et al 2004). Illegal though it may be in some cases, one might argue that this type of local harvest does more good than harm, or at least has a neutral impact, when it comes to certain animal species. Having pet reptiles sensitizes children to animals, bringing them nearer to “nature” and creating empathy for creatures besides humans. When the animals are collected locally, it familiarizes children (and their parents) with the animals whose habitat they share. One cannot make similar arguments in favor of commercial exploitation of threatened species for the illegal pet trade.
The international trade in spur-thighed tortoises has occurred for much longer than one might think. We have this 19th century observation from a European traveler in Morocco:
Of late years, in London, small tortoises have been common on the barrows of costermongers. These creatures are sold for about sixpence each as pets for children. Yet few people know the native country of the reptiles, or the cruel treat- ment they undergo on the voyage to England. Among the minor exports from Morocco is that of tortoises. They abound about Mogador and Safi, where they are met with, when the sun is out, dragging their unwieldy bodies along, and when interfered with defying danger by retiring within their impregnable armour. These tortoises are collected by the country people, and bought up by the Jews, who pack them closely in barrels for exportation. Cold-blooded and abstinent as they are, they must suffer much during the long voyage from deprivation of food and power of locomotion.
Pressure has mounted since, leading to huge quantities of tortoises exported out of North Africa: as of 1969, 300,000 tortoises per year were imported from Morocco into Britain (Lambert 1969); Sicilian authorities confiscated 1400 illegally imported North African tortoises in April 2008, most of which “in poor health (e.g. showing evidence of dehydration, mutilation and carapace fractures) and some were infested with ticks” (Brianti et al 2010); in southeastern Spain, wildlife recovery centers receive hundreds of these illegal tortoises every year (Chavarri et al 2012).
Those who would buy pet tortoises without endangering wild populations could choose captive-bred specimens. They must take care, though, that so-called captive bred animals have actually come from well-maintained captive stock. Fraud may be prolific, with many retailers labeling imported wild animals incorrectly, necessitating personal knowledge of the breeder and his/her breeding facilities (Highfield 2002).
In 1975, an international treaty went into force to protect endangered species. Called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), it places certain species into one of three categories of international protection. All of the world’s tortoise species are listed in CITES Appendix II (the category of intermediate protection) except for nine species listed in Appendix I (the category of most protection). The spur-thighed tortoise falls into Appendix II.
Species listed in any of these categories cannot cross international borders without an export permit, nor can their parts or anything made from their parts. In the least protected category, Appendix III, export permits can be issued if the specimen was not obtained in a way that violated local laws, and if living specimens are shipped humanely. Appendix II requires a state authority to determine whether export will harm the population as a whole, allowing issue of a permit only if it determines there will be no harm, and if the specimen meets the requirements of Appendix III. Appendix I is the most protected category, requiring an import permit as well as an export permit. Permits cannot be issued unless the animal meets all of the above requirements, and permits cannot be granted for animals used primarily for commercial purposes. Morocco ratified CITES on October 21, 1975.
1. Appendix I shall include all species threatened with extinction which are or may be affected by trade. Trade in specimens of these species must be subject to particularly strict regulation in order not to endanger further their survival and must only be authorized in exceptional circumstances.
2. Appendix II shall include:
(a) all species which although not necessarily now threatened with extinction may become so unless trade in specimens of such species is subject to strict regulation in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival; and
(b) other species which must be subject to regulation in order that trade in specimens of certain species referred to in sub-paragraph (a) of this paragraph may be brought under effective control.
3. Appendix III shall include all species which any Party identifies as being subject to regulation within its jurisdiction for the purpose of preventing or restricting exploitation, and as needing the co-operation of other Parties in the control of trade.
4. The Parties shall not allow trade in specimens of species included in Appendices I, II and III except in accordance with the provisions of the present Convention.
For the moment Testudo graeca is listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN, but continued international exploitation, especially alongside local habitat destruction and climate change, could quickly worsen their status.
Akhmisse, Mustapha. Médecine, Magie, et Sorcellerie au Maroc. Casablanca : Dar Kortoba, 2000.
Brianti, E., F. Dantas-Torres, S. Giannetto, A. Risitano, G. Brucato, G. Gaglio, and D. Otranto. 2010. Risk for the introduction of exotic ticks and pathogens into Italy through the illegal importation of tortoises, Testudo graeca. Medical and Veterinary Entomology 24: 336-339. Link.
Chávarri, Malva, Eduardo Berriatua, Andrés Giménez, Eva Gracia, Carlos Martínez-Carrasco, Juana M. Ortiz, Rocío Ruiz de Ybáñez. 2012. Differences in helminth infections between captive and wild spur-thighed tortoises Testudo graeca in southern Spain: A potential risk of reintroductions of this species. Veterinary Parasitology 187: 491-497.
Highfield, A.C. and J. R. Bayley. 1996. The trade in tortoise-derived souvenir products in Morocco. Traffic Bulletin 16(1):33-35. Link.
Highfield, A. C. and J. R. Bayley. 1999 (date of last website modification). Folklore, myth, and exploitation of reptiles in Morocco and Tunisia. Online resource, accessed 2/12/2014. Link.
Highfield, A. C. 2002 (date of last website modification). Folklore, myth, and exploitation of reptiles in Morocco and Tunisia. Online resource, accessed 2/12/2014. Link.
Kiester, A. R. and D. H. Olson. 2011. Prime time for turtle conservation. Herpetological Review 42(2):198-204. Link.
Lambert, M.R.K. 1969. Tortoise drain in Morocco. Oryx 10: 161–166.
Leared, Aurther. Morocco and the Moors. London: Sampson Low, Mauston, Searle, & Rivington. 1876. Link.
Pérez, Irene, Andrés Giménez, José Antonio Sánchez-Zapata, José Daniel Anadón, Marcelo Martínez, Miguel Ángel Esteve. 2004. Non-commercial collection of spur-thighed tortoises (Testudo graeca graeca): a cultural problem in southeast Spain. Biological Conservation 118: 175-181. Link.
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, Appendices. Link.