Shell Engraving Idea to Help Save Endangered Tortoise

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Conservationists are so concerned about one of the world’s most endangered species, a tortoise that they are resorting to engraving its shell to save its life.  The Ploughshare tortoises are highly prized due to their attractive black and gold shells that fetch a high price on the international black market.

Efforts to harvest these shells in their native Madagascar has meant that there could be as few as 500 of the animal left.  So the shells of the tortoises are having a permanent engraving on them with a serial number and the letters MG for Madagascar.

Disfigurement

The hope is that this will make the animals unattractive to poachers and therefore reduce the need for them.

When the idea was first mentioned, it was vigorously opposed by many in the conservation movement as well as the Madagascar government and some of the staff involved in the charity, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

They likened the carving of the shells to removing horns from rhinos or tusks from elephants in order to stop being poached.  Director of Durrell’s operations in the country, Richard Lewis, said that they hate having to do this but it is needed to save the species.  He added that it goes against every grain and that it is against what they stand for.  But they also realise it is a major step to stop people requiring this animals and that it would be a genuine deterrent.

Traffickers

The idea came about when talking to traffickers made them realise that once marked, the tortoises would be of no interest to the majority of the black market traders.  The etching itself is only several millimetres deep and only penetrates the shell, not touching the more sensitive bone beneath it.  The staff is convinced that the process might be uncomfortable for animals but does not hurt them.

The extreme measures are one of a range of tactics that the charity are using to thwart smugglers and try to save the species.  They already run a captive breeding centre in the Ankarafansika National Park with more than 100 young adults having been released into the wild from it.

However, the centre itself became a target for poachers and is now guarded 24 hours a day with electronic surveillance and a team of police.  As recently as April, two Taiwanese men pretending to be tourists tried to bribe staff to get into the centre.  They were later arrested and found to have dozens of other less threatened species of tortoise already stashed in their luggage.

In addition, the only space in the wild where the species live, a stretch of sand, rock and bamboo in Baly Bay to the north-west of the island has been transformed into a national park to protect it.  Local people have been hired to patrol the area and watch over the tortoises, many of which already have radio tracker tags fitted.

But the area is too large to completely guard and poachers slip in.  Young animals are small enough to fit into the palm of your hand and are easy to smuggle.  One such example was a suitcase found in Bangkok airport in 2013 that contained 54 young animals, many of whom were dead.


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