By Charlotte Hamlyn
Fourteen critically endangered tortoises destined for the illegal wildlife trade have been rescued and are now in quarantine at Perth Zoo.
The distinctive shell of the radiated tortoise makes it a prized target for wildlife traffickers who sell the animals on the black market to be used as ornaments, pets or for their meat, which is said to have aphrodisiac properties.
The animals were intercepted by officials in Hong Kong two years ago.
After a long period of negotiations they were transferred to Perth where they have spent three months in quarantine in a temperature controlled enclosure.
Senior vet at Perth Zoo Simone Vitali said the tortoises, which are native to Madagascar, were bound for the black market in Asia.
"We know very little about where these animals came from in the first place except they were probably taken from the wild and so they may well be related to one another," Dr Vitali said.
"They're very popular in the illegal wildlife pet trade because they're very charismatic little animals, they're very easy to care for and they're long-lived.
"For illegal trafficking they're also quite attractive because they're low maintenance. If they're cooled down they're very easy to smuggle through, they're quite hardy."
The tortoises have now found a safe haven at Perth Zoo which has expertise in caring for and breeding radiated tortoises, with several of its own in captivity.
They have undergone a series of health checks during their three-month stint in quarantine and are set to be released in the coming days.
Four of them will remain in Perth and the other 10 will be transferred to zoos in Queensland.
Dr Vitali said there had been a spike in wildlife trafficking activity in recent years, particularly in native Australian reptiles and birds, which were highly sought after and fetch a high price overseas.
"With increases in the mobility of people between countries, it's becoming increasingly easy to smuggle wildlife and the networks that do it are becoming increasingly sophisticated," she said.
"So there's a real challenge for us to rise to that and to respond to that in an effective way."
Perth Zoo recently partnered with an international wildlife trade monitoring network, known as TRAFFIC, part-funding a wildlife crime analyst position to gather intelligence and enforce international laws.
Dr Vitali said the position has resulted in a number of seizures and arrests.
"It's really rewarding to know that you can change the direction of lives of animals that were destined for the illegal trade," Dr Vitali said.
"We can put them somewhere where they can raise awareness of illegal wildlife trafficking and raise awareness of these really charismatic animals."