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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 5, 2003

Amnesty offer in tortoise thefts

By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer

Police are offering amnesty to anyone returning three juvenile star tortoises that were stolen from the Honolulu Zoo last weekend, but the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Hawai'i cautions that the animals could already be in another country.

The missing tortoises, of the species Geochelone elegans, are each between 3 to 4 inches in length.

Animal CrimeStoppers

A. Eugene Hester, a 38-year veteran of the service, said the type of people who steal tortoises are usually international collectors connected to a network of dealers, smugglers and other collectors, both legal and illegal.

He said that his agency is aware of individuals who deal in tortoises and that these people wander the international market. But if they could do business in Hawai'i, they'd do so.

"There could be those kinds of individuals in the island," said Hester. "There are collectors of rare animals just like there are people that collect coins."

CrimeStoppers announced that anyone who wishes to return the tortoises may take the animals to the Hawaiian Humane Society's dropoff area and leave them with the staff, no questions asked.

Police said the theft of tortoises is a crime that may result in a prison term of up to five years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Sometime between 9 p.m. last Friday and 9 a.m. Saturday, someone cut a hand-sized hole into one of the wire-mesh sides of the tortoises' enclosure in the Children's Zoo area and took the tortoises, which measure about 3 to 4 inches in length.

Star tortoises, also known as Asian star tortoises or Indian star tortoises, are found throughout Asia, mainly in brush wood, sand dunes or scrubland.

The tortoises are valued at $300 to $600 each.

The animals, with yellowish-tan heads, have distinctively patterned shells that are punctuated with sharply elevated mounds and yellow markings.

The three tortoises taken from the Honolulu Zoo were hatched there in May.

The particular species of tortoise, which has not been bred by the zoo since the 1960s, can live to be 100 years old.

In addition to being sought for collections, star tortoises are a favorite commodity of international animal smugglers who attempt to bring large quantities into Southeast Asian countries where they end up as pets, stuffed decorations or a meal.

On Nov. 17, wildlife officials in the Indian city of Chennai seized a suitcase filled with 540 star tortoises from an airport employee at the international airport there. Since August, officials there have confiscated more than 2,600 star tortoises before they were smuggled out of the country.

Henry Chapin, a retired University of Hawai'i literature professor and a self-described tortoise fancier who has owned several tortoises, said the animals are not native to Hawai'i.

"They were stolen because they command a good price," Chapin said.

Chapin himself may have been a victim of tortoise theft. Two years ago, he discovered that one of his tortoises was missing from the front yard of his East Manoa Road home.

"I kept the thing in a pen, and I know tortoises cannot climb over fences," he said.

Reach Peter Boylan at 535-8110 or pboylan@honoluluadvertiser.com.