The Legal Implications Of Tortoise Ownership

In many respects, the humble tortoise can make a great pet. There is no need to take them out for a lengthy walk in the pouring rain during the winter months. They’re a source of constant entertainment as they lumber around your garden. And they live for decades – sometimes even longer than humans – ensuring that you can avoid the awkward conversations with your children that come with goldfish and hamsters.

What many people do not realise, however, is that tortoises are governed and protected by several laws.  This is for the best, as a tortoise can be a deceptively difficult pet to care for. These reptiles grow significantly larger than you may be expecting, and their diet is not as simple as a couple of lettuce leaves from the local supermarket. If you are going to keep a tortoise as a pet, you’ll have to jump through a few hoops first.

The Selling and Trade of Tortoises is Closely Governed by Law

Are you planning to nip to your local pet shop and pick up a tortoise? This may not be possible, as there are many laws and restrictions in place surrounding the species. For more information on why there are so many limitations surrounding tortoises, read this report from the RSPCA.

This was not always the case, as tortoises were hugely popular household pets in the 1960s and 1970s. Alas, mistreatment of the species led to a number of restrictions being placed against their adoption. Now, if a business or individual is looking to sell a tortoise, they will need an appropriate permit. This law stretches from the biggest chain pet shop in the world to a private breeder that lives in your town.

Permits Required to Sell a Tortoise

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, aka CITES, governs the permit requirements for selling a tortoise. Thankfully, tortoises are not yet considered to be an endangered species. However, trade of these animals is controlled to help maintain the population. The idea behind Appendix II is to ensure that anybody bringing an animal home as a pet will be able to keep them safe and secure.

If you are looking into purchasing a tortoise from a private breeder, pet shop or adopting from a shelter, confirm that the seller holds the appropriate permits and paperwork from CITES. If the seller is reluctant or unable to provide evidence of their legal compliance, walk away.

You may also want to consider reporting them to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). The illegal and unethical trading of animals must be stopped, especially when the future of the species is as precarious as the tortoise.

Permits Required to Keep a Tortoise as a Pet

There are two possible permits that will be required to legally keep a tortoise in the UK. Which license you require depends on the length of the tortoise’s plastron, which is the flat underbelly of a tortoise shell.

  • If the plastron is smaller than 60mm, the tortoise will not be able to be microchipped. This means that you will need an Article 10 Application Certificate.
  • If the plastron is larger than 60mm, the tortoise should be microchipped, so it can be identified. This means that you will need a Specimen-Specific Article 10 Application Certificate.

It is essential that you keep this paperwork, and that the permits are in your name. Failure to keep these records up-to-date could be a criminal offense. It is also illegal to hold a certificate issued in another EU country. If you import a tortoise from another country into the UK, you will need to obtain the appropriate paperwork.

Can I Bypass These Laws and Bring a Wild Tortoise Home?

No – the private adoption and captivity of wild tortoises is strictly forbidden under EU law. You could be charged with the illegal trade of a protected species if you attempt to do this. This is another reason why it is so important that you check the documentation and credentials of a seller before purchasing a tortoise.

Not only will your potentially be breaking the law, but you could struggle with the behaviour of a wild tortoise. These reptiles can be cantankerous and aggressive if their needs are not being met and may not take kindly to being kept in captivity if they are not used to it.

Some Breeds of Tortoise are More Protected Than Others

Like all animals, some breeds of tortoise are closer to extinction than others, and thus more closely protected. Mediterranean (aka Hermann’s), Mediterranean Spur-Thigh and Leopard Tortoises are all very popular as pets, but now listed as endangered species by CITES. The Russian Tortoise (aka Horsefield), however, is equally popular – and not endangered.

Are There Any Professional Bodies that Protect Tortoises?

Yes, The Tortoise Trust. This UK-based charity works tirelessly to protect tortoises, both wild and domesticated. While the Trust are unable to answer personal questions, the website is packed with information. It also contains a peer-to-peer forum, populated by tortoise enthusiasts.

Tortoises are undoubtedly great pets and wonderful animals, but they must be treated with the appropriate respect. Never purchase or adopt a tortoise that comes from a resource you do not trust. Ask to see the appropriate CITES paperwork of the dealer. Research the particular breed of tortoise and ensure that you are meeting their needs and keeping them comfortable. Take each of these steps, and you should enjoy a long and happy relationship with your pet!


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