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Flat-backed Spider Tortoise, Parc Endemika
Credit: Antony Stanley on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

On June 24th, 2015, BBC's science editor, David Shukman published his investigation of the drastic measures taken to save critically endangered tortoises in Madagascar.

Intro photo of a Flat-backed Spider Tortoise by Antony Stanley on flickr (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic).

The Drastic Part?

Defacing the shells of these gorgeous creatures who have become the target of poachers because their gold and black shells are fetching big money on the international black market.

Endemic Madagascan tortoise, of which there are only an estimated 400 in the wild. Here at Pairi Daiza, Brugelette, Belgium© Hans Hillewaert / CC-BY-SA-4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How Much?

As stated in David Shukman's report, a ploughshare tortoise over 30 years old was offered for $37,900, a 10-year-old tortoise was priced at $14,200 and an 8-month-old baby tortoise was $1400.

What Are These Tortoises Being Used For?

According to the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (who has been fighting to save this critically endangered tortoise for over 26 years), there is high demand for ploughshare tortoises as unique and exotic pets.

The region where this illegal pet trading has been discovered is South-East Asia. These precious creatures are sold predominantly in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

How Critically Endangered are Madagascar's Tortoises?

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species states the Ploughshare Tortoise (Astrochelys yniphora), also known as Madagascar Tortoise, Angonoka, and Madagascar Angulated Tortoise is "currently estimated to possibly be as low as 400 individuals, of which 200 adults (G. Pedrono pers.comm., 2008)."

Sadly, based on their Population Viability Analysis (Pedrono et al. 2004), the ploughshare tortoise is "at extreme risk of extinction in the wild within 10 to 15 years."

The Radiated Tortoise Is Also Critically Endangered

Radiated Tortoise, Tsimanampetsotsa, Madagascar
Credit: Frank Vassen on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Tortoise | There were four like this in the hotel groundsNH53 on flickr /CC-by-2.0There are no firm numbers given by the IUCN of how many Radiated Tortoises (Astrochelys radiata) remain.

A 2005 Population and Habitat Viability Analysis predicted they would reach extinction (at various times), with most estimates clustering around 45 years into the future (Randriamahazo et al. 2007)."

According to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, radiated tortoises are not only being illegal sold as exotic pets, but are being consumed, particularly in China. It is somehow believed that eating a radiated tortoise will have an aphrodisiac effect. 

It all reminds of my article Rhino Horn: The Most Expensive Placebo. It's tragic that traditional doctors in Asia buy the shells of baby tortoises. They use them in "medicinal" concoctions that allegedly enhances the sexual performance of men.

Baby Tortoise | Taken on August 5th, 2011
Credit: NH53 on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Only On Madagascar Can These Tortoises Be Found

During my research, it became clear to me that all of the tortoises that are endemic to Madagascar are at risk of becoming extinct: the Ploughshare, Radiated, Spider (shown below), and Flat-tailed species.

A Pyxis arachnoides (Madagascar spider tortoise) in Sainte Marie Island, MadagascarBy JialiangGao www.peace-on-earth.org (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Today, the ploughshare and radiated tortoises appear to be the most critically endangered.

In a 2013 LiveScience article by Douglas Main titled Poaching Pushes 2 Madagascar Tortoises to Brink, I learned that the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) stated, "More than 1,000 radiated and ploughshare tortoises have been confiscated from smugglers in the first three months of 2013 alone."

It's a stark reminder that the WCS added this to their 2013 press release:

"According to INTERPOL, only 10 percent of smuggled wildlife is actually seized, suggesting that over 2000 animals have entered the illegal trade into Asia alone. If trade level persists, it will likely lead this species to extinction."

Why Is Smuggling Raging Out of Control?

Another endangered speciesgailhampshire (gails_pictures on flickr) / CC-by-2.0Ever since Madagascar's political crises began in 2009, law enforcement and other public measures have become eroded.

It was once considered taboo to harm these tortoises, but with increasing levels of drought and poverty, this tradition has been forgone.

It astounded me that WCS stated "illegal poaching and smuggling has increased at least tenfold" in the last five or six years. 

And upon further research, I discovered in a 2011 BBC article by Hannah McNeish, that poachers will roam villages (armed with guns and machetes) in groups of up to 100 while they collect thousands of tortoises.

Tsilavo Rafeliarisoa, a conservationist, explained: "When a gang of poachers with guns and machetes come and take tortoises, the villagers are defenseless."

Perhaps more shocking was the revelation that more people are eating tortoises because of rising food costs. Apparently, according to McNeish's article:

"It has become a favourite snack in southern towns such as Tsiombe and Beloka, even among government officials who ought to be at the forefront of campaigns to save the reptiles from extinction."

Other Threats to Madagascar's Tortoises

Range of the Angonoka tortoiseBy Derfel73; Visionholder et al. [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsAlthough these tortoises live an exceptionally long time, they also have a relatively slow rate of reproduction.

In 1777, a radiated tortoise was given as a gift to to the royal family of the island nation of Tonga by explorer James Cook. This tortoise lived there for 188 years.

InfoBarrel author TanoCalvenoa added, "Tortoises typically take at least ten years to reach full size, so this tortoise was most likely at least 200 years old."

The bush pig, a swine species introduced by humans, and preys on both the eggs and young of the ploughshare tortoise.

Uncontrolled fires (used to clear brush for agricultural uses) has also destroyed much of the habitat these tortoises need.

The range of ploughshare tortoise (Astrochelys yniphora) is already extremely small. I found a Creative Commons map (dated 31 October 2011) and shown at right. According to the IUCN Red List, they are only found in the Baly Bay region (over an area of approximately 700 km², but only 66 km² of this is considered suitable habitat).

Lastly

The Turtle Conservancy published the following video in 2014. It is the most comprehensive video I could find which summarized the IUCN Red List meeting (2007 - 2008) hosted in Madagascar and dedicated to the survival of these rare and precious tortoises.

Turtle Conservancy - IUCN Red List Meeting Madagascar

Published on April 1st, 2014

This film introduces the precarious future of Madagascar's unique turtles and tortoises and their habitats. It is a summary of the IUCN Red List meeting that took place in Madagascar to reclassify all five of the endemic turtles and tortoises: the Spider Tortoise (Pyxis arachnoides), Radiated Tortoise (Astrochelys radiata), Flat-tailed Tortoise (Pyxis planicauda), Ploughshare Tortoise (Astrochelys yniphora), and the Madagascar Big-headed Turtle (Erymnochelys madagascariensis).

Included are interviews with many of the world's leading turtle and tortoise biologists: Peter Pritchard, Jim Juvik, Rick Hudson, Anders Rhodin, and Russell Mittermeier, to name a few.

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