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, was “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.