The Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans) is native to three discrete locations of India (Rajasthan, Gujarat continuing to Pakistan), southern India (Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh), and Sri Lanka. No other free-ranging populations exist. Star tortoises have been protected under CITES Schedule II since 1975 which permits trade under restrictions. Recently they became up-listed to “Vulnerable” following exposure of a colossal black market trade and projected impact on continued survival in the wild.
Analyses of climate (CLIMATCH) indicate Tasmania has an unsuitable environment (no squares matching ≥6 = “very low” potential) for the terrestrial Star tortoise to establish free-ranging populations, or even survive the cold temperate conditions. Indian Star tortoise is not able to hibernate, does not utilise shelters and requires a warm wet monsoonal climate for successful reproduction to occur. These reptiles are relatively sedentary, slow moving and are late breeders with long generation intervals, further reducing opportunity for dispersal or successful establishment.
Indian star tortoises are adapted to an exclusively herbivorous diet favouring succulents and species such as prickly pear cactus, so are an unlikely threat to Tasmanian native reptiles (which are omnivores or carnivorous) or to native herbivores. Their small body size and selective dietary habits strongly suggest Indian Star tortoise would not impact negatively on existing vegetation (native or agricultural) through browsing. Star tortoises do not modify or utilise other key resources that may conceivably impact on abiotic factors of the environment or requirements of existing species. Risks to humans or other animals from this innocuous, small tortoise are not a concern.
In summary, potential for survival or establishment in the wild by Indian star tortoise is highly unlikely. Following an escape event, there were no foreseeable significant risks in terms of impact on the environment, native fauna and flora, farmed or domestic species. Thereby no predicted run-on effects on the economy (agriculture, horticulture, tourism) are anticipated.
Managed captive populations of animals can serve as an important backstop by preserving critical genetic variance against future declines. The Indian Star tortoise is in the conservation spotlight. As such they can act as a flagship conservation species to highlight key messaging about illegal wildlife trade, global reptile declines and educate public about responsible ownership of exotic pets.
Indian Star tortoise is a species permitted for live import to Australia under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999 for non-commercial purpose and holding by secure facilities such as zoos. As a prudent mitigation measure, this same restriction would be appropriate for import of Indian Star tortoises to Tasmania.
As part of the import assessment process – and following the initial risk assessment – consideration was given to possible mitigation to reduce the risk associated with importing the Indian star tortoise.
Mitigation options to reduce the risk associated with importing Indian Star tortoise include:
1. Limiting importation to registered wildlife parks or zoos to ensure the holding facility meets the stringent keeping standards Tasmania applies to all institutions.
2. Requiring any wildlife park or zoo to submit an Indian star tortoise species management plan (including enclosure details) prior to import.
3. The wildlife exhibition facility can clearly demonstrate they have proficient keepers for that particular species.