Rare tortoises saved from smugglers make Zoo debut

Chester Zoo undated handout photo of one of four rare ploughshare tortoises who were rescued from smugglers that have gone on show in the UK for the first time.
Chester Zoo undated handout photo of one of four rare ploughshare tortoises who were rescued from smugglers that have gone on show in the UK for the first time.

Four endangered tortoises who were rescued from smugglers have gone on show in the UK for the first time.

The ploughshare tortoises were sent to Chester Zoo in 2012 after they were confiscated by customs officials in Hong Kong in 2009.

The four were part of a shipment of 13 tortoises smuggled from their native Madagascar.

The reptiles, listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), are highly prized for their distinctive gold and black shells and fetch high prices on the black market, but have been poached to the point of extinction.

It's estimated there could be just 500 of the creatures left, making them one of the rarest animals in the world.

Dr Gerardo Garcia, curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates at Chester Zoo, said: "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 four tortoises will form part of the European breeding programme for the species, which is being run with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

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.