TAXKORGAN, Xinjiang, Aug. 18 (Xinhua) -- China on Monday handed over 204 confiscated black pond turtles to Pakistan, home to the rare animals' natural habitat.
The handover ceremony was held at the land crossing customs office in Tajik Autonomous County of Taxkorgan in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, which borders Pakistan.
This is the first time China has returned smuggled rare animals to their source country. It was also a major step for China in combating wildlife poaching and smuggling after it incinerated 6 tonnes of seized ivory stock in January in Dongguan, Guangdong Province.
The smuggled reptiles were seized in Taxkorgan in June. Police caught a Pakistani suspect, who smuggled the animals to Taxkorgan, and five Chinese buyers, who said they intended to ship the animals to Guangzhou and Hong Kong for sale.
The black pond turtle is an endangered species protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, of which China is a contracting member. The convention prohibits international trading of the rare reptile.
According to investigators, the turtles can be sold for over 10,000 yuan (1,627 U.S. dollars) each as pets in China.
Wildlife protection officials from Pakistan and representatives from China's State Forestry Administration and the General Administration of Customs attended the handover ceremony.
Riaz Ahamed Wagan, provincial head of forests of Sindh, Pakistan, attended the ceremony and thanked China for its efforts to return the smuggled animals and fulfill its obligations under the convention.
He said he expects greater cooperation between customs in both countries in combating wildlife smuggling.
The Chinese government will cover the expense of sending the animals to their original habitat at Nara Wetland Complex near Pakistan's capital, Karachi.
The customs in Taxkorgan is a six-hour ride from the nearest airport in Kashgar, Xinjiang, and 1,800 km away from the regional capital of Urumqi.
Gou Weijie, a customs anti-smuggling detective in Kashgar, which administrates Taxkorgan, said that over the past two months since they uncovered the case, customs officers have learned to take care of the carnivorous turtles.
Liu Xiaohui, head of the anti-smuggling department of the General Administration of Customs, said the move will enhance public awareness of wildlife protection and contribute to closer international cooperation in fighting poaching and smuggling.
According to customs figures, China uncovered 114 smuggling cases in the first seven months of the year, seizing 120 tonnes of wild animals and plants.
The official said between June and the end of this year, customs will maintain a tightened crackdown on ivory smuggling, which is still rampant.