Officials at an airport in the Galápagos Islands seized 185 baby tortoises on Sunday that were wrapped in plastic and packed in a suitcase that was bound for mainland Ecuador, the authorities said.
The tortoises were discovered in a red suitcase that was on its way to the port city of Guayaquil, Ecuador, during an inspection at the Galápagos Ecological Airport on the island of Baltra, the airport said in a statement.
An inspector noticed “irregularities’’ during an X-ray scan of the suitcase, which had been declared as carrying souvenirs, the airport said.
Airport officials said on Sunday that 10 of the tortoises, which were estimated to be at least 3 months old, had died. Five more died on Monday, according to Ecuador’s environmental minister, Marcelo Mata.
The theft is the latest episode to prompt outrage in the environmentally fragile Galápagos archipelago, which is about 600 miles off the Pacific coast of Ecuador. In 2018, a group of tour operators wrote to Ecuador’s tourism minister to express concern that the growth of land-based tourism on the islands had the potential to harm its photogenic landscapes and beaches as well as its famous wildlife, including giant tortoises, sea lions and iguanas.
A motive for the tortoise smuggling effort was not immediately clear. James P. Gibbs, a professor of environmental and forest biology at the State University of New York in Syracuse, said a healthy juvenile tortoise could be sold for about $5,000. Tortoises are killed in the wild for food or for their oil, he said.
The suitcase, he said, is “a tremendous amount of value to somebody.” He said the theft was “brazen,” adding, “The cruelty of it is what struck me.”
Mr. Mata said on Twitter that the tortoises had been taken from the wild and not from the breeding centers in the Galápagos National Park. The surviving reptiles, which were described as giant tortoises, were transferred to the Fausto Llerena breeding center on Santa Cruz Island, he said.
Mr. Mata announced on Monday that a police officer, Nixon Alejandro, had been arrested in the case, which was being investigated by the Ministry of the Environment and Water and by state prosecutors. The authorities said that Mr. Alejandro would be charged with a crime against wild flora and fauna, which is punishable by up to three years in prison.
Officials from the Galápagos National Park were assisting with the investigation.
The tortoises, which photos on the airport’s Facebook page showed were small enough to fit in one hand, were being evaluated by veterinarians, who reported on Monday that they were not in good health, Mr. Mata said.