Illegal trafficking of two critically endangered tortoise species from Madagascar has reached epidemic proportions, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Turtle Survival Alliance, Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership, Turtle Conservancy, Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund and other groups who urge authorities to clamp down on wildlife smuggling before some species are collected out of existence.
According to the groups, more than 1,000 radiated and ploughshare tortoises have been confiscated from smugglers in the first three months of 2013 alone. In late March, 54 ploughshare tortoises made it as far as Thailand before being seized by authorities. A recent report by TRAFFIC states that the radiated tortoise is now the most common tortoise for sale in Bangkok's infamous Chatuchak wildlife market.
The groups say that since the beginning of Madagascar's continuing political crisis in 2009, smuggling has increased by at least ten-fold due to weak governance and rule-of-law. In addition, erosion of cultural protection of the tortoises for short term monetary gain has contributed to their sharp decline. In the past, tortoises were protected by "fady" – a local belief that harming the tortoises is taboo. However, with years of drought and increasing levels of poverty, people from regions outside the tortoise's natural range, who do not practice these types of fady, are capturing and illegally selling tortoises.
"These tortoises are truly one of Madagascar's most iconic species," said James Deutsch, WCS Executive Director for Africa Programs. "This level of exploitation is unsustainable. Unless immediate action is taken to better protect the wild populations, their extinction is imminent."
The Wildlife Conservation Society and its conservation partners are urging Malagasy officials to take a hard stand against illegal trafficking and increase the number of guards in remote areas to the north where the tortoises remain. This, coupled with public education efforts and better enforcement in import countries such as Thailand, will help take pressure off these critically endangered reptiles. Meanwhile, the Turtle Conservancy and Turtle Survival Alliance have been able to import a small number of animals seized from the illegal trade into the U.S. for the foundation of an assurance colony.
Eric Goode, Founder of the Turtle Conservancy, said: "While the seizure in Thailand was the largest single seizure of ploughshare tortoises in history, the TC has documented over 250 Ploughshares in the trade in East and Southeast Asia. According to INTERPOL, only 10 percent of smuggled wildlife is actually seized, suggesting that over 2000 animals have entered the illegal trade into Asia alone. If trade level persists, it will likely lead this species to extinction."
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