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Officials in the Galápagos Islands made a shocking discovery on Sunday of 185 endangered baby tortoises packed inside airport luggage.
The tiny tortoises, roughly the size of a human hand, were wrapped in plastic and piled on top of one another inside a red suitcase, according to a photo shared by the Galápagos Ecological Airport.
The suitcase was bound for the port city of Guayaquil, Ecuador. A customs declaration said the luggage only contained “souvenirs,” but an X-ray scan prompted an inspection, the airport said in a statement.
Ten of the tortoises were immediately discovered dead. Five more died later, possibly due to stress, the Ministry of the Environment and Water said in a press release, which also announced that a necropsy will be performed.
A veterinarian performed a health evaluation on the surviving hatchings and determined they were in poor health, authorities said.
A police officer identified as Nixon Alejandro was arrested and is expected to be charged with a crime against wild flora and fauna. He faces up to three years in prison, according to authorities.
The giant Galápagos tortoise is only found on the Galápagos archipelago. When fully grown, it is the largest living tortoise in the world, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
The ancestors of today’s Galápagos tortoises arrived from mainland South America 2 to 3 million years ago and then split into 14 different species, 12 of which are believed to exist today. Overhunting and humans’ introduction of other animals, including dogs, cattle and horses, have largely contributed to the tortoises’ decline, according to the Galapagos Conservation Trust.
In 2012, the last remaining member of a species of giant tortoise from La Pinta, one of the smallest islands in the Galápagos, died at around 100 years old. The tortoise, known as Lonesome George, was a conservation icon and a symbol of the archipelago.
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