Galapagos Islands airport staff discover 185 baby tortoises wrapped in plastic inside suitcase – USA TODAY

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Nearly 200 tortoises, all younger than three months old, were found inside a suitcase at a Galapagos Islands airport on Sunday morning in what officials say was an attempt to smuggle the animals off the islands.

The tortoises were discovered by staff at Seymour Airport on the island of Baltra, located in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The Galapagos Islands are a province of Ecuador.

In a statement released by the airport, X-ray machines detected irregularities in a red suitcase that had been said to be carrying souvenirs. When staff opened the suitcase, they found 185 young tortoises wrapped in plastic, including 10 which had died. 

Marcelo Mata, Ecuador’s environment minister, tweeted Sunday afternoon that he categorically rejects “these crimes against wildlife and the natural heritage of Ecuadorians.” He said the tortoises were taken from the wild and the surviving ones are undergoing veterinary reviews. 

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No charges have been filed as of Monday afternoon in connection to the suitcase as airport officials are waiting for national and environmental police to conduct investigations, but the people who checked in the suitcase were held for questioning, according to the airport’s statement.

The tortoises were intended to be sent to the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil.

Famous from Charles Darwin’s visit to the islands in the 1830s, the Galapagos tortoises are the biggest of their kind and can live over 100 years. They are considered to be a vulnerable species in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund, and have been protected by the Ecuadorian government since 1970. 

The illegal sale of these rare tortoises can yield thousands of dollars, but smuggling any animal from the islands can result in one to three years in prison.

Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jord_mendoza.

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Galapagos Islands airport staff discover 185 baby tortoises wrapped in plastic inside suitcase – USA TODAY

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