Taipei. Taiwan's coastguard seized more than 2,500 protected turtles bound for dinner plates in China, officials said Sunday, calling it the biggest smuggling case of its kind they had ever seen.
Coastguard officials discovered the 2,626 rare turtles — 1,180 Asian yellow pond turtles and 1,446 yellow-lined box turtles — in a container on board a vessel in Kaohsiung, a port in the south of Taiwan, on Saturday.
The coastguard arrested a man with the surname Cheng but declined to provide more details because the masterminds behind the operation have yet to be found.
The animals were to be eaten or used as an ingredient there in traditional medicine, officials said.
"After consuming up their own turtles, now they are turning their eyes to Southeast Asia and Taiwan," Lin Kuo-Chang, head of conservation affairs at Taiwan's Council of Agriculture, told AFP.
Because wild turtle populations are on a sharp decline in China, market prices have surged to about five times those of Taiwan, which is separated by 200 kilometer straits from the Chinese mainland.
"Since the turtles are not seen often in the wild, many people must have been involved in the illegal catching," said Wu Sheng-Hai, a life science professor at National Chung Hsing University in Taipei.
The two types of turtles are classified in the second category of Taiwan's three-category wildlife protection list, which means they carry a "rare and valuable" designation — one step below endangered.