Before I get into this subject I feel I should clarify my position; that is to say I’m a tortoise enthusiast not a legal professional, and can offer no legal advice on the subject of buying and selling tortoises, and the legislation around such activities.
That being said, I will explain what I can based on my own experience and those of others I have spoken to/read about. But again, I would strongly advise carrying out your own investigations regarding what you can and can’t legally do before you do go about selling any tortoises, especially given the huge variability on the subject from one geographic location to another… as we shall see.
In countries where tortoises are available legally it generally seems legal to ‘give away’ tortoises free of charge, as this doesn’t constitute a business transaction of any kind. In some cases this becomes your only option if you’ve misplaced important documentation that proves the tortoise was legitimately sourced.
Be aware that if you try and disguise a transaction as ‘gifting’ or adoption, but there is still an exchange of cash, this won’t excuse the fact that you have still carried out a cash transaction. It doesn’t matter what you describe it as in the eyes of the law if money changes hands!
The Deal in America
By far the greatest level of contention as far as selling tortoises is concerned is with regard to hatchlings (baby tortoises).
In the USA there is a famous (or should that be infamous?) nationwide law that states that no turtle or tortoise under 4 inches in length may be sold to the public. The reason for this, believe it or not, stems from fears over children putting the creatures in their mouths, and the inherent risk of salmonella poisoning as a result!
Anyone with half a brain will be quick to point out that tortoises larger than 4 inches are not immune from salmonella, and that a child doesn’t need to put a tortoise in their mouth in order to catch salmonella from it. However the law is what it is, and to be fair it probably has helped reduce the rate of salmonella infection to some degree.
There are some exceptions to the 4” rule, specifically regarding sales by private individuals (ie not sales by a bona fide ‘business’) however how this is policed and enforced varies between states, and the inherent grey area of what actually constitutes a ‘business’ in this respect, is a huge can of worms in itself. If in doubt you should contact your relevant state department for wildlife/fish/game to get a clear breakdown of what you can and cannot sell.
The other rule which seems to be more or less in effect nationwide (but again, don’t quote me on it) is that all species native to the US (for example desert tortoises and gopher tortoises) cannot be bought, sold, and by extension of course, taken from the wild to be taken into captivity without a special permit.
This means the only people that can possess these species in captivity are those that have a special permit; likely those directly involved in tortoise cultivation by profession.
The same rules don’t tend to apply with non native species, unless they feature on a list of endangered species provided by the authorities in their country of origin. So you will find plenty of people selling non native species such as Russian or Red Foot tortoises without issue, although once again the 4” rule still applies.
The Deal in The UK
Article 10 Annex A Tortoises
If you’re planning on selling tortoises in the UK the most important thing to have a grasp of is whether the tortoise or tortoises you plan to sell fall under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) article 10 legislation. Failure to do so could constitute a criminal offense, so having knowledge of this area shouldn’t be overlooked!
For all intents and purposes tortoises that require Article 10 documentation cannot be sold without said documentation, whereas tortoise breeds that fall outside Article 10 require no such documentation.
As I write this the following species fall under Article 10 legislation:
- Angonoka (Geochelone yniphora)
- Berger’s cape tortoise (Homopus bergeri)
- Bolson tortoise (Gopherus flavomarginatus)
- Egyptian tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni)
- Geometric tortoise (Psammobates geometricus)
- Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni)
- Madagascar flat-shelled tortoise (Pyxis planicauda)
- Madagascar spider tortoise (Pyxis arachnoides)
- Marginated tortoise (Testudo marginata)
- Negev tortoise (Testudo wernei)
- Pancake tortoise (Malacochersus tornieri)
- Radiated tortoise (Geochelone radiata)
- Spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca)
- Galapagos Giant Tortoise (Geochelone nigra)
Which as you can see includes some of the most popular breeds in the UK, including Hermann’s and Mediterranean Spur Thigh tortoises, so there’s a good chance you’ll be affected if you have hatchlings from these species and you want to sell them on.
The first thing know is that there are two forms of certification:
- Transaction Specific Certificate (TSC)
- Species Specific Certificate (SSC)
The basic difference between the two is that a TSC is issued to tortoises of less than 60mm in length, and isvalid for a single transaction only. An SSC is issued to tortoises over 60mm in length that have been microchipped. This is usually issued as a replacement for the TSC, and allows further transactions to take place as long as the certificate stays with the tortoise for the remainder of its life.
Now let’s suppose your fully certified tortoise has given birth to a group of hatchlings, in this case you shouldn’t have any issues receiving a TSC provided you can prove that both parents are microchipped and each have a valid SSC of their own.
If for any reason you’ve got a tortoise bred in captivity here in the UK but you’re unable to prove its provenance, it’s unlikely you’ll be granted full TSC or SSC certification for them. You should however be able to receive a ‘Breeders Certificate’. This likely won’t enable you to sell the tortoise in question, but it will allow full certification to be issued for any offspring it produces, which you can then sell on should you wish.
Article 10 Annex B Tortoises
Article 10 Annex B tortoises by law do not require any certification in order to sell, and can in theory be sold freely to anyone, by anyone.
Common Annex B breeds include:
- Leopard tortoise
- Sulcata tortoise
- Indian star tortoise
- Red footed tortoise
It’s important to note however, that just because these breeds don’t require certification doesn’t mean they are in some way an ‘easy option’. In fact in a lot of cases the opposite is true: Indian Stars are notoriously prone to respiratory illness, Red Foots are omnivorous and require more work to keep their diet varied, while Sulcatas are the largest commercially available species, and require a large plot of land to be kept humanely.
The fact that these species don’t require a certificate is simply because they are not endangered or threatened with extinction in their country of origin at present, however the tide can quickly change with tortoises, with many of today’s abundant breeds quickly becoming tomorrow’s endangered ones.
How Much Will I Get For My Tortoise?
The answer to this question largely depends on two key factors:
- The age of your tortoise
- The breed of your tortoise
Whilst hatchlings of common breeds such as Greek, Russian, and Leopard tortoises can cost as little as £75 or $100 (I’ve even seen special offers with Hermann’s tortoises retailing for as little as £50 or $65), older specimens are typically a couple of hundred pounds or more depending on their age.
Certain breeds can command much higher sums, with the Indian Star tortoise being the most notable example; a hatchling might cost £180 ($240), while adult can be a thousand pounds or more.
If you’re selling hatchlings (or suitably large enough juveniles in the US) then pricing your tortoises is a simpler affair, as the market rate is fairly easy to determine. For a larger, older tortoise, you’ll want to sell him or her based on their merits, such as the care you’ve provided it throughout their life, their overall health, and any other ‘priceless’ information you can provide to a prospective seller regarding the tortoise’s idiosyncrasies, preferences, and habits.