Authorities in the Philippines have been left shell-shocked after uncovering more than 1500 exotic turtles and tortoises hidden inside luggage abandoned at Manila airport.
The turtles, which the Bureau of Customs said could have retailed for more than 4.5 million pesos ($122,000), were found in four unclaimed suitcases following a flight from Hong Kong.
A total of 1529 turtles were seized, including the threatened Indian star tortoise, red-footed tortoise, sulcata tortoise and red-eared slider turtles, the bureau said in a statement on Facebook.
In photos posted online, many of the reptiles were seen wrapped in tape or hidden inside plastic containers buried among clothes inside the suitcases.
The bureau said the passenger, a suspected wildlife trafficker, may have abandoned their plans upon discovering the harsh penalties for those involved in the illegal wildlife trade.
“Violators may face imprisonment of one year and one day to two years and a fine of 20,000 pesos … to 200,000 pesos,” a spokesperson said.
“[We] will continuously protect the borders against importation and exportation of illegal wildlife trade and other prohibited and anti-social goods.”
The reptiles, which authorities believe may have been sold as exotic pets, have been handed over to the Wildlife Traffic Monitoring Unit.
It is not the first time staff at the airport have encountered passengers of the reptile variety.
Earlier this year, more than 60 iguanas, chameleons and bearded dragons were intercepted by customs staff, the bureau said.
A total of 560 wildlife and endangered species were seized through air parcels, baggage and shipments last year by port authorities.
Wildlife trafficking is worth an estimated $24 billion globally, with the greatest demand being for souvenirs of African animals like elephants and rhinoceroses.
But there is evidence the market for reptiles is more lucrative than ever before, with a single one fetching tens of thousands of dollars in Asia, Europe and the United States.
In 2014, the international organisation leading the fight against wildlife trafficking warned illegal poaching was driving endangered species to extinction.