With serious money involved in trafficking of rare and exotic wildlife creatures, it is no wonder that in recent times, the world’s rarest tortoises have been found stuffed in suitcases, discovered in hotel rooms and found hidden in the pockets and underwear of air travelers in a bid to smuggle them to foreign shores.
According to news reports, the global trade in smuggled wildlife is a thriving business, with worldwide sales estimated to be anywhere from $10 billion to $20 billion. This is second only to the black market for illegal drug trafficking. One of the victims of this unbridled greed is the ploughshare tortoise, also known as the ‘angonoka tortoise’.
Ploughshare tortoise is an endangered species that lives in tropical grasslands and dry bamboo-scrub forests of northwestern Madagascar. The entire wild population of ploughshare tortoise is found within the Baly Bay National Park, Madagascar. International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the species as ‘critically endangered’ and placed it on its Red List of threatened animals.
These tortoises are on the verge of extinction due to habitat loss and predators like bush pigs who feed on the eggs of these rare reptiles. Over the years, their natural habitat has shrunk considerably as villagers clear land for cattle grazing and farming by starting fires. However their worst enemies are the poachers who would go to any length to acquire and then smuggle them to lucrative rare animal markets in Europe and south-east Asian countries.
Though the trade of these critically endangered species is strictly forbidden under Madagascar and international laws, it does not stop the well organized and heavily armed “tortoise mafia” from trying to acquire them.
Conservationists believe that less than 1,000 of these ploughshare tortoises remain and they could become extinct within ten years if unabated poaching and smuggling goes on. According to Richard Lewis, the director of Durrell's Madagascar program, there is a huge demand for these rare tortoises in exotic pets markets, making it very difficult to curb their illegal hunting.
Desperate times have called for desperate measures. Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust has been working for the past 25 years in Madagascar to save endangered species from extinction. It also supports local communities to manage and sustain their natural resources. With the theft of rare tortoises from their breeding enclosures, the Trust managers have been forced to take drastic measures to stop the smuggling by poachers.
In addition to captive breeding of the tortoises in order to increase their population, these measures include patrolling by the local villagers to stop outsiders from coming in and sticking radio transmitters to the animals and tracking them on daily basis while they are out in the wild. But the most drastic step that they have been forced to take is defacing the beautiful tortoise shells with numbers and markings so that they are no longer a collector’s item.
The shells are engraved with permanent markings to make the animals worthless on the black market. This also lets custom officials around the world know that these tortoises have been stolen from the Madagascar’s national park. It is hoped that this step will act as a major deterrent for poachers who take away live animals from the breeding farms and sanctuaries in order to sell them as pets.
Government officials accede that as long as rich and influential buyers of ploughshare tortoises continue to exist, poaching cannot be stamped out. Though the island is rich in biodiversity and teeming with rich and unique flora and fauna, the people are poor and selling these turtles represents easy money. While demand from wealthy buyers continues to corrupt poverty stricken communities, conservationists and protectors of these endangered species have an uphill battle on their hands.