Officials at an airport in the Galápagos Islands have discovered 185 baby tortoises in a suitcase that was headed for mainland Ecuador.
A statement from the Aeropuerto Ecológico Galápagos located on Isla Baltra—one of the 21 islands in the famed Pacific archipelago—said the tortoises were found during a routine inspection by customs officials on Sunday morning.
The cargo was being sent illegally by smugglers to the port city of Guayaquil, which lies 700 miles to the east.
The tortoise were detected by operators on an X-ray machine in the airport, who noticed “irregularities” in the suitcase, which was said to contain “souvenirs.”
Officials said that the tortoises were no older than three months, and that it was difficult to determine which island they had come from.
Photos show that the tortoises had been wrapped in plastic. The smugglers likely did this to immobilize the animals so that they were not detected by authorities.
While the majority of the baby tortoises survived their ordeal, airport officials said 10 of the animals had died.
So far, authorities have made no arrests regarding the incident, but members of the transport company that the checked in the suitcase were held for questioning.
In order to protect the life of the turtles, officials have taken them to a special place within the airport’s facilities.
Ecuador’s environment minister, Marcelo Mata, said in response to the incident on Twitter: “I categorically reject these crimes against wildlife and the natural heritage of Ecuadorians.”
Mata said authorities were investigating the incident, and that the turtles were not taken from the breeding centers of the Galápagos National Park but from the wild.
He said vets were examining the surviving turtles in order to identify their species as part of the investigative process.
The Galápagos Islands are home to around a dozen species of tortoises, which include the famous giant tortoises of the archipelago.
Illegal animal trafficking is one of the biggest threats to the tortoises that live on the islands. Hatchling-sized juveniles can fetch sums of more than $5,000 on the global exotic pet market, the BBC reported.
Illegally trafficking fauna off the islands is punishable by between one and three years in prison. The archipelago is a protected area that is renowned for its wealth of unique flora and fauna species.
The endemic species of the islands were famously studied by Charles Darwin, with his observations contributing to the creation of his theory of evolution.