With only around 500 of the critters left, plodding around the dry forests of northern Madagascar, the ploughshare tortoise is highly desired by poachers and collectors alike. Unfortunately, this has led the team over at the Durrell Wildlife Trust to take drastic action. Against all of their will, they’ve finally decided that the only thing left to do is to deface each and every wild tortoise.
As the reptiles are prized for their particularly beautiful golden shells, Durrell has spent over 25 years working to ensure that the species survives in the wild, including running a successful breeding program. But all of this effort looks to be undermined, as in recent years there has been a boom in poaching. As a result of this, they’ve taken action to engrave all of the reptiles with tags in order to make them less desirable to poachers and more traceable if smuggled.
“We hate doing it but it's got to be done to help save the species,” Richard Lewis, director of Durrell’s operations in Madagascar, told BBC News. “It goes against every grain and gene in our bodies to do this – everything says we shouldn't do this, what we believe in, what we stand for. But we think this can be a major step in stopping people wanting these animals. We believe this will be a genuine deterrent.”
Restricted to a tiny range, the ploughshare tortoise is considered to be the rarest in the world as deforestation, predation by feral pigs and hunting by locals have all slashed its numbers. Durrell was able to help to combat these problems by involving communities residing within the reptile's range and encouraging a sense of pride in the animal. But then the collectors moved in, driven by the demanding pet trade.
With its highly-domed, golden shell being seen as particularly attractive, a 30-year-old tortoise can sell for a staggering $37,900 (£24,060) on the black market, according to the BBC. This makes them of particular interest to smugglers, and it was only two years ago that over 50 of the baby animals were seized at Bangkok airport in a suitcase, representing over 5% of the estimated wild population.
To date, about 70 of the tortoises have been engraved, with the team still having to hunt down the remaining 400 or so to give them the same treatment. The technique has been likened to removing a rhino’s horn, only marking the hard outer shell while avoiding the bone underneath. The scientists are convinced that while it might be a little uncomfortable for the critters, the procedure is painless. And if it helps to preserve and protect the species from extinction, it’s got to be worth it.