When Tunisians Take Tough Life Out On Turtles, The IFAW Takes Action

By Nancy Collisson for the IFAW, UAE

In tiny Tunisia, where more than half the population of 10.5 million falls below the age of 25, and 15.2 percent of its working age is unemployed, hundreds of thousands struggle to survive and provide for their families by maintaining a shadow economy of trade in items like fuel; drugs; charcoal, made from the burning of unique species of trees; birds; and turtles.

Illegal smuggling has burgeoned in the tiny north-African coastal country since the 2011 ousting of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. But a recent poll showed that 80 percent of the population now desired a more strictly regulated economic system than democracy.

If rare Tunisian turtles could talk, they’d likely agree.

Turtles under threat cannot talk, scream or run, but they can hide in their shells. And so these beautiful, fascinating, prehistoric looking creatures tend to get picked up and shucked into sacks and boxes like mere rocks and shipped around the world. 

Genoa and Marseille appear to be favored destinations, as these sites take great care at ports of entry and customs to inspect shipments. Statistics derived from the Italian and French cities show that they collect approximately 1,500 live tortoises from Tunisian smugglers, each year. 

The bulk of these turtle-smuggling operations takes place during the late summer, when Tunisians who’ve completed their homeland holidays collect these reptiles for their journeys back to their workplaces in Europe. Managing an under-the-table payment to a corrupt authority or simply getting lucky gives them the seedy opportunity to earn extra cash selling their hard-shelled hoardings to Europeans who generally regard these rare and exotic species as mere novelties. This is the case because the lifespan of a turtle in captivity may be only a few days or years, when in the wild, they can live for several decades. 

As a primarily desert African country, Tunisia is not particularly rich in renowned exotic wildlife, but due to its dire economic circumstances – the case in many other nations prone to notoriously heinous animal-smuggling operations – Tunisia’s wild turtles and sometimes striking birds of prey suffer the consequences.

Fortunately, there are always many more who humanely and boldly stand up for these voiceless creatures. 

The fact is, wildlife in Tunisia is so highly valued that the nation’s network of nature preserves has expanded from 7,400 hectares in 1987, to 600,000 hectares in 2011.

The government of Tunisia also has served its wildlife by enacting legislation to protect it. Perhaps the most important act it has undertaken in this noble effort is that of becoming a signatory to several international conventions including CITES, CMS, and the Journal of Fests contained in Law No. 20 of 1988. Furthermore, in 2006, the Tunisian Minister of Agriculture and Water Resources established a list of rare and endangered plants and animals that society is charged with protecting.

Of course, along with Tunisia’s own economic hardships, the other half of the reason for the evolution of the phenomenon of turtle trade in Europe, is the high price that wild turtles can fetch among those desirous of possessing these quiet creatures as pets, as well as lax animal-inspection control at various points of transit from Tunisian ports. 

Their cruel journey from Tunisia to Europe is often taken stuffed inside cardboard boxes where they are layered upon several inserts of cardboard ‘flooring.’ These boxes are set in cars on board ferries departing from the Tunisian ports. In the case of birds, flight feathers are trimmed so that they will not flap about, and then they too are lain down and placed in cartons. Often the birds are drugged and their eyelids are stitched shut so they remain quiet – but in case they awaken while on route, their temporary blindness won’t cause them to panic and flutter. As camouflage, these cartons are covered with a layer of commonly carried vegetables like tomatoes, peppers or onions. Predictably and unfortunately, many birds and turtles die along the way.

Rescued birds are returned to Tunisia, where they remain in the care of a local NGO for rehabilitation and until their feathers grow to the point that they can fly and be released back into the wild. 

As for wild turtles, they are all sent to a rehabilitation center located 30 kilometers south of the capital of Tunis, called the Boukornine National Park. The Tunisian Public Forest Management established the park in cooperation with Marwell Wildlife. The center features a one-hectare corral, a modest lab, and a small hospital supervised by a veterinary surgeon from Marwell Wildlife. Four veterinarians, all graduates of the National School of Veterinary Medicine in Sidi Thabet, in Tunisia, staff the center. The center is renowned for its research related to its indigenous turtle species.  

Such operations are not without great expense. To help meet these costs, French and Italian authorities – the responsible and primary recipients of the products of their intensive inspection efforts –  provide the expenses of returning the smuggled wild animals to their native land of Tunisia. However, other European countries like Belgium, for example, require the Public Forest Management of Tunisia to shoulder these expenses. Considering the weak economic base of the Tunisia, clearly this expense becomes difficult to bear – and the consequences of this are imaginably the likelihood of such cities by simply capitulating to the problem. 

Although the international smuggling of animals remains an international phenomenon difficult to resist especially among those suffering from deep poverty, we can mitigate this scourge by:

– Providing better information to customs officers

– Implementing national laws that rigidly enforce the trafficking of endangered wildlife in the international marketplace
– Improving passenger flow, especially at peak times, to enable customs officers to optimally manage time needed to thoroughly inspect
– Encouraging, supporting, and publishing scientific research in the field of endangered wildlife species, especially among youth

– Reconsidering maritime transport of any wild animals, especially small ones, to decrease their mortality rate
– Exchanging information between exporting and importing countries of smuggled animals so that the country of origin does the needful to dismantle smuggling operations. Presently, this type of cooperation does not exist between Tunisia and France, or Tunisia and Italy.

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