- Nearly 200 baby tortoises were discovered in a suitcase by officials at a Galapagos airport Sunday.
- Officials said they believed the hatchlings were removed from tortoise nests on Santa Cruz Island.
- The tortoises have been sent to the Giant Tortoise Breeding and Rearing Center to be cared for.
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The tortoise hatchlings were discovered Sunday wrapped in plastic in a red suitcase bound for the port city of Guayaquil, Ecuador, according to a statement from the Galapagos Ecological Airport.
The animals had been wrapped individually in plastic to limit their movement and detection, a Galapagos Conservancy statement said. At least 10 of the tortoises had died by the time officials discovered the suitcase.
Wildlife officials estimate most of the tortoises are between one- to six-months-old, including some that appear to be newly hatched.
Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment and Water said in a statement that five additional tortoises have died since the hatchlings were discovered, according to CNN. The outlet reported the additional deaths could be due to stress from being separated from their habitat.
Wacho Tapia, the director of conservation at Galapagos Conservancy, said he thinks the tortoises were removed from tortoise nests on Santa Cruz Island.
He also said the young tortoises were found in “dreadful condition” and appear to be extremely underweight.
The conservancy is in the process of collecting size and weight data for each tortoise to better assess its health condition.
Galapagos giant tortoises are the largest living tortoises in the world, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
The species is only native to the Galapagos Islands, and the World Wildlife fund lists the animals as vulnerable.
The current population size for the giant tortoises is only 10-15% of its historical number, the Galapagos Conservancy said, due to past exploitation of the animals.
The surviving hatchlings have been sent to the Giant Tortoise Breeding and Rearing Center on Santa Cruz Island where they will be cared for.
The center is managed by the Galapagos National Park Directorate, according to CNN, and park veterinarians and guardians will keep a close eye on the remaining tortoises.
A police officer has been arrested in connection to the incident, according to CNN.
The outlet reported that the suspect will be charged with crimes against wildlife, according to the Ministry of the Environment and Water. The suspect could face a sentence of up to three years in prison.
There are only 20,000-25,000 wild tortoises left living on the islands, according to estimates by the Galapagos Conservancy.
The conservancy said it is working closely with authorities to increase security around the natural tortoise nesting sites to prevent future trafficking attempts.