Madagascar is famous worldwide for being the only place on Earth where the evolutionary freaks known as lemurs run wild. But Madagascar’s wealth of weird and wonderful species found nowhere else on Earth isn’t limited to peculiar primates with oversized eyes. Madagascar is also home to some of the rarest tortoises in the world, which in addition to being threatened by habitat loss and climate change, are also being pushed to the brink of extinction by the exotic pet trade.
Back in March, officials at the international airport in Bangkok, Thailand, discovered suitcases stuffed with two of the rarest tortoise species in the world—ploughshare tortoises and radiated tortoises. In all, there were 75 critically endangered tortoises wrapped in cellophane and crammed into roller bags.
The tortoises were headed for the pet markets of Southeast Asia, which are the single biggest threat to the survival of these species.
The international attention generated by this, the largest seizure in history of these endangered species, has long since been diverted elsewhere. But the tortoises’ ordeal is far from over.
Since their rescue from wildlife smugglers more than three months ago, the tortoises have been cared for at an undisclosed rescue center just outside of Bangkok, where many of the seized tortoises have since died.
“After smuggling attempts the tortoises are often very sick and in a state of shock, so they need special care,” explained Tsanta Fiderana, a Malagasy veterinarian who recently returned from Thailand where she spent a week assessing the health of the surviving tortoises. “We don’t know what sort of conditions and treatment they experienced during their journeys, and they may have been exposed to diseases and parasites.”
The tortoises have yet to be returned to Madagascar because of the strict laws designed to help protect them. Because trade in these species is illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the tortoises need a bevy of permits and paperwork to be approved before they can head home.
Even once the surviving tortoises return to Madagascar, Fiderana doubts that they will ever see their wild home again.
“Even after months of quarantine, it is too risky to expose the wild population to these tortoises, when we don’t know where they have been or what they have been exposed to,” said Fiderana. “They will almost certainly spend the rest of their days at our captive breeding site in the North, where they will hopefully add to the genetic diversity of their species in the future, though they will never see their home bay on the western coast again.”
While this may seem like a sad ending to an already upsetting story, the ploughshare breeding program in Madagascar, which is supported by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, has, over its 25 years of operation, released over 80 ploughshare tortoises into the wild. While there are believed to be perhaps as few as 400 tortoises in the wild, last year, wildlife experts confirmed that tortoises born in captivity and then released into the wild were successfully breeding—a small step on this species’ long road to recovery, but definitely a step in the right direction.
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