GUANGZHOU, China, Aug. 17 (UPI) -- China sentenced seven members of an international tortoise smuggling ring to prison after they tried to transport more than 300 critically endangered radiated tortoises on a plane from Madagascar into China to be bred for the international pet trade.
Wildlife Conservation Society reported the sentences included an 11-year prison term for the leader of the ring and a 5-year sentence for an airport employee who aided the group.
"This sentencing sends a strong message to illegal wildlife dealers that the punishment for these activities will fit the severity of the crime," WCS Coordinator of Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Conservation Brian D. Horne said.
The ring was discovered when the airport employee was caught carrying two knapsacks filled with 316 tortoises on Feb 3, 2015.
WCS reports radiated tortoises, named for the design on their shells, are popular as pets. The smugglers reportedly used the airport employee to get them past customs. Then the animals would be transported to an apartment for breeding and sale to buyers found through online forums and message groups.
Police managed to rescue 130 additional tortoises while arresting the entire group as well as buyers from Beijing and Guangxi.
"Through the arrest and sentencing of these smugglers, many radiated tortoises were saved—both directly through the confiscation of the animals, and by the message sent by the sentencing," Executive Director of WCS's Asia Program Aili Kang said. "These deterrents are necessary if we are going to protect the natural heritage of our global communities."