Arbitraging the tortoise market

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In my garden in Rabat there are half a dozen tortoises which emerge on sunny mornings, loll in the sun, couple from time to time with a sound like wrestling wardrobes, and spend the winter under the woodpile. At least two of them were already there when we arrived in 2010. Another – Mr T – was bought in the mdina as a Christmas present. He was recently joined by a pair of middle-sized tortoises presented to us after a trip to the souq by the visiting New College rugger team, and known as Wyckham and William. There is also a baby tortoise, about the size of a half-crown, apparently born here, which lives on the back lawn and causes us to walk nervously on tip-toe, watching carefully for her small, round back half-hidden by grass. I suspect there may be more, but I am not intimate enough with any except Mr T to be sure of exactly who I am talking to.

Many diplomats stick their heads under their cars in the mornings looking for suspicious packages and wires: we go down on all fours before driving off, to make sure that one of the tortoises isn’t enjoying the warm shade of a tyre.

These spur-thighed tortoises (testudo graeca) are native to Morocco, and range free in our garden as of right. They need no care from me, and think they own the place which, as Moroccans, they do. They ignore the cats disdainfully, and their disdain is returned: I think the two species simply move at too different a pace from one another to take notice. They mostly do the same with us, ignoring us completely unless offered lettuce, in which case they line up like the Grand Fleet being reviewed at Spithead.

When we first arrived I consulted the internet anxiously to find out whether I needed to look after our sitting tenants. Rule One for tortoise-owners, according to the wisdom of the web, is that they are prone to constipation and may need occasional enemas. A little daunted, I found a very clear diagram of how this was to be done, and was relieved to discover that it demands little more than putting the tortoise bottom-first on a wooden shingle sloping downwards into a basin of warm soapy water. Gravity, it seems, does the rest.

However, such drastic (I use the term advisedly) remedies seem not to be called for in warm climates. In fact colonic irrigation for tortoises is probably necessary only in captivity in the chilly north, where they really oughtn’t to be in the first place. This shouldn’t surprise us, since tortoises are built for Africa, its temperatures, vegetation and humidity. This causes me a little guilt, thinking back to my childhood in 1960s London when every garden, including ours, had its – presumably costive – tortoise. I don’t ever remember up-ending the poor chap in warm water to administer laxatives.

Between 1895 and 1984 some ten million tortoises were apparently imported into Britain, 67% of them (how does anyone invent these figures?) from Morocco. And CITES, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, has made it illegal to import or sell the little fellows (unless bred in captivity and microchipped) since 1984.

But there’s market pressure. The tortoise-man in the Souaika sells a big tortoise for 150 dirhams, and a middling sort of tortoise for 100 or so. Small ones are cheaper (and no doubt they’re all much cheaper if you’re not a gullible middle-aged Englishman – the RSPCA reports that they can, or could, be bought in bulk in Marakech for £1 each, which is 13 dirhams). He has trays of them, rather squashed up but not in too obvious distress; on the other hand, he doesn’t like people photographing them, which may be simple irritation at all the tourists who snap without buying, but may equally reflect a discomfort at undercover missions from animal rights organizations.

This month 66 spur-thighed tortoises were found in a sports bag hidden in the back of a van coming off the ferry from Nador at Sète in the south of France. There, it seems, they command prices of between 1000 and 2000 dirhams a pop. So for 66 that’s profit of going on £10 grand – which is why people smuggle them. Fortunately all 66 survived, though the press reports do not record whether they have been repatriated to Morocco. If not, we must wish the douaniers sètois the best of fortune with the wooden shingles and the soapy water. Wholesale smuggling of tortoises takes place too on a much larger scale, with tortoises stacked upon each other like melons, and many miserable deaths in transit.

At the retail end of the trade it seems that British tourists, nostalgic for childhood memories of tortoises-in-the-garden, are buying them and taking them home in pockets and handbags. This is tough on the handbag, which will fill up with tortoise-crap, but more importantly, is tough on the tortoise. Ours will stay where they belong when we leave, fossicking about in our Rabat garden in the sunshine to amuse and delight our successors.

Moroccans ascribe all sorts of virtues to tortoises. Some believe that their blood cures warts, some that they keep snakes away from the garden. Yet others believe that their hiss can turn children blind, though my offspring seem still to be pretty sharp-eyed. At least Mr T isn’t likely to suffer the fate of Darwin’s tortoises, sent back from the Galapagos to England, but again and again eaten en route by sailors who found them irresistibly delicious: tortoises here in Morocco are generally thought of as haram on the culinary front, because they are believed to eat – forgive me – shit. So perhaps that handbag will be self-cleaning, after all. But don’t.


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