CHENNAI: Most smugglers at least go through the motions of concealing contraband. But not Mohammed Sharif (31), whose passport pegs him at an address in Mannady here. Sharif brazenly attempted to get a black duffel bag teeming with 58 star tortoises, checked in at the International Airport, in a smuggling bid that, for obvious reasons, didn’t go too well.
Airport sources explained how the CISF guards who were scanning the baggage nearly jumped when they saw several crawling ‘spider-like’ objects inside the bag, as it came up on the screen. They immediately took him inside and checked his bag, to find it overflowing with star tortoises (Geochelone elegans), with some clothes for packing. “If the tortoises hadn’t been moving it may have still shown up on the baggage scanning system,” said a customs official.
Much like several others who have been nabbed trying to smuggle exotic pets and animals out of the country, Sharif was also headed to Bangkok via an AirAsia flight FD 154 that was scheduled to leave at 10.25 pm on Monday night. “Bangkok and Indonesia are large markets for Indian star tortoises. They are ornamental and fetch much more than what they’re sold at here,” said a forest department official.
Sharif was grilled all night by a customs air intelligence unit team and he has allegedly let on about a large ring of animal-sourcing smugglers, who have been in operation for the past few years. He was handed over to the forest department staff only at 9 am on Tuesday. All the tortoises are alive and are on their way to the forest range station in Velachery, from where they will most likely be rehabilitated at the Guindy Snake Park or the Vandalur Zoo.
Forest Range Officer S Davidraj said that they were investigating further and that Sharif would be formally charged and arrested for trying to smuggle a schedule IV protected species under the Wildlife Protection Act, shortly.