29 Dec 2016

The ploughshare tortoises, regarded as the world’s most threatened species of tortoise, were handed to us in 2012 after being confiscated by customs officials in Hong Kong in 2009.

The quartet were part of a shipment of 13 being smuggled from their native Madagascar and will form part of the European Breeding Programme for the species, which is being run with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

We now want to help raise awareness of the plight of the species in the wild.

Ploughshare tortoises are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) having been poached to the point of extinction. They are highly prized for their distinctive gold and black shells and fetch exceptionally high prices on the international black market.

Efforts to steal the animals from Madagascar are so relentless that there may only be 500 left, making it one of the rarest animals in the world. 

Dr Gerardo Garcia, curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates, explains:

The ploughshare tortoise is iconic because of its beautiful shell but the species is under huge pressure for its survival. There’s a very real possibility the species could be lost forever due to illegal trafficking for the exotic pet trade. Most of these illegally exported tortoises are sold in markets in South East Asia. 

The United Nations estimates the illegal trade is worth billions of pounds each year and, despite efforts to crack down on it, it continues to grow. These tortoises are seen as the jewel in the crown of the reptile world. It’s very possible that, within the next two years, there will be none left in the wild because of this trade. 

Conservation has never been more critical. We can’t sit back and watch this important species simply disappear and our long-term ambition is to maintain a safety net population at the zoo.

The illegal wildlife trade is worth $19 billion every year. It is the fourth biggest international crime after drugs, arms and human trafficking.

The only habitat where the ploughshare tortoises live in the wild – a remote stretch of sand, rock and bamboo in North West Madagascar – has been turned into a national park to offer protection.

Alongside the wildlife crime agency TRAFFIC and other top international zoos, we’re fronting a global campaign which is fighting illegal animal trafficking. The campaign includes a smartphone app that allows people to submit images and data of suspicious items on sale, possibly helping enforcement agencies. The app – Wildlife Witness – focusses on the region of South East Asia, which has been identified has a hub in the global illegal wildlife trade.

Find out more about the illegal wildlife trade on our Act for Wildlife website here.