By John R. Platt
On Friday, March 15, authorities in Thailand intercepted two wildlife smugglers trying to carry hundreds of endangered tortoises through Suvarnabhumi International Airport. Among the animals recovered were 54 critically endangered ploughshare tortoises (Astrochelys yniphora) from Madagascar. The entire wild population for this species is estimated at just 400 to 600 tortoises, meaning this seizure represented something in the neighborhood of 10 percent of the entire species. Things got worse from there.
The news of the seizure made headlines around the world, but what has not been widely reported until now is that within a few weeks of the rescue nearly half of the tortoises had died, a terrible blow toward efforts to keep this species from extinction. The remaining tortoises, which were destined for the illegal pet trade in Thailand and China before their rescue, are currently in a Thai wildlife rescue center while international organizations see what they can do to help keep the rest alive and healthy, or even eventually return them to Madagascar. Unfortunately, that might not be an easy task.
“Legally these animals are supposed to be held as evidence until the trial,” says Jim Juvik, senior scientist at the Turtle Conservancy and one of the men who actually rediscovered this species in 1971 a few decades after it was thought to have gone extinct. The Conservancy is arguing that simple photographs would be as useful as evidence as the tortoises themselves, but even if the Thai government accepts that several additional factors complicate the matter. For one thing, no one knows if the ploughshares have been exposed to any diseases, which would make it hard or impossible to return them to the wild. For another, Madagascar is in the middle of several years’ worth of political turmoil, so even though the country has expressed interest in having the tortoises repatriated, this objective is low on its list of priorities. More....