By Jeremy Hance
In March, two people were caught attempting to smuggle 54 ploughshare tortoises (Astrochelys yniphora) into Thailand. Listed as Critically Endangered, the tortoises' wild population is down to approximately 400-500 animals in its native Madagascar, meaning the smugglers were attempting to move over 10 percent of the total population. Now, the Scientific American blog Extinction Countdown reports that nearly half of the smuggled tortoises have died of unknown causes.
Given the hardiness of the species, experts were surprised at the high death-toll. But the loss only raises tension over the future of the remaining rescued tortoises. Returning to their native habitat in Madagascar may be one option, but there are concerns that the smuggled tortoises could carry foreign diseases. In addition, some fear smugglers will simply steal the tortoises from the wild again.
"We spend a lot of money in Madagascar for guards and boats and all kinds of things to protect these animals in their natural habitat, but whatever money we spend is trumped by the wealth of Asia. It overwhelms our little efforts," Jim Juvik, senior scientist at the Turtle Conservancy, told Extinction Countdown.
The ploughshare tortoise, also known as the angonoka tortoise, is furthermore imperiled by land clearing by fires and predation by invasive bushpigs. In 2011, the species was listed as number 10 in the list of the world's most threatened turtles. Photo.