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An emergency visit by a team from Madagascar’s environmental agency as well as police to a home in Toliara recently uncovered what looks to be a smuggling operation of epic proportions.

As agents from the government descended on the abode, following complaints from neighbors of a rancid smell coming from the two story building, they interrupted the work of three people in the process of burying deceased radiated tortoises.

National Geographic

National Geographic reports that within the home, agents found “thousands of tortoises of varying sizes covering the floors, jammed up against one another with no room to move”, with the animals crowding the floors in the bathroom, kitchen and other rooms. One investigator described the smell of urine and feces as “overwhelming.”

A total of 9,888 tortoises were in the house and that did not include the 180 that were found dead and others that may have already been buried. The survivors were loaded onto trucks and sent to a wildlife refuge north of the town.

NatGeo reports that the majority of the tortoises are doing well, but 574 did die to extensive dehydration or infection.

According to Rick Hudson, president of the U.S. Turtle Survival Alliance, the size of the radiated tortoises found in the abode suggests to him that they were being prepped for illicit transport abroad.

Over one hundred countries have signed a treaty banning the smuggling of Madagascar’s radiated tortoises. The European Union is especially tough on contreveners. But a political coup in Madagascar in 2009 has made the enforcement of the treaty almost impossible.

In this case, authorities do not yet know who is the ‘boss’ behind the failed smuggling attempt, but they do know there is one.

Radiated tortoises face dangers from poachers who prize them for their meat by locals or as exotic pets by foreign buyers like the Chinese.

Deforestation has driven the tortoises from their habitats and into the hands of poachers and smugglers, whittling down the populace from an estimated 12 million to three million.