Animals
9:32 pm
Thu February 27, 2014

To Save Endangered Tortoises, Conservationists Deface Their Shells

Originally published on Sat March 22, 2014 11:18 am

They're a quiet bunch, the hundreds of animals residing at the well-guarded botanical oasis in California's Ojai Valley. They've been brought to the Turtle Conservancy from countries around the world, like modern-day refugees escaping certain and persistent perils.

For years, the conservancy has worked on the front lines of the battle against smugglers, including on behalf of the ploughshare tortoise from Madagascar. The species is among the rarest tortoises on Earth; experts believe that only a few hundred still exist. Their rarity, along with a golden shell, has laid a high price on their head.

"Turtles and tortoises are arguably the most threatened group of animals on the planet," says Eric Goode, founder of the Turtle Conservancy. "Out of the 330 species of turtles and tortoises, over half of them are threatened with extinction."

Goode purchased the land in the Ojai Valley eight years ago, transforming it into a breeding facility and a lush haven for some of the world's most endangered creatures — those threatened by hunters, habitat destruction and now a booming global wildlife trade.

"In Southeast Asia in particular, the newfound wealth in the middle class enables people to now buy animals and keep them as status symbols," Goode says. "This is happening in China, in Indonesia."

The ploughshare tortoise is one of the most coveted living status symbols. On the black market they can fetch tens of thousands of dollars each. If you hold an adult in your hands, it's the size of a basketball.

At the Turtle Conservancy, two of them slowly meander toward veterinarian Paul Gibbons, their rounded feet lightly touching the earth.

"We're looking at a tortoise that's incredibly beautiful with its golden shell and this rounded dome," Gibbons says.

To help save this species, conservationists aim to make its most attractive feature, the shell, less desirable to poachers and wealthy collectors, he says. Carved into the back of a 30-pound female ploughshare at the conservancy are four large numbers, 7-0-0-2, and two block letters, M-G. Each tortoise has a unique identifier that includes info about where the tortoise originated, in this case Madagascar, and where it was found — Asia. The engraving is a last-ditch effort to protect the animals.

"We want the hobbyist or the pet owner to think: I'm looking for a beautiful tortoise, one that's not damaged," Gibbons says.

The engraving is being done not only on those in the captive breeding program but on the few hundred remaining in the wild as well. Shells wear down as part of the aging process and the procedure doesn't appear to be a painful one for the tortoise, Gibbons says. The long-term effects are less certain, though.

"We are balancing some harm with the benefit to the species and the individual," Gibbons says.

Currently, 11 ploughshare tortoises live at the sanctuary, but many people are hoping that number rises. Gibbons points to a pregnant female ploughshare nestled next to a large rock.

"The eggs now are 2 1/2 months old. We're seeing signs that we believe there's a chance they might be fertile, but we're not certain yet," Gibbons says.

Nothing would make the conservancy's Goode happier than welcoming captive-bred ploughshare hatchlings into the world.

"On one hand, tortoises have lived for over 250 million years. They've outlived the dinosaurs and they precede the dinosaurs. On the other hand, man is able to exterminate them very, very quickly," Goode says.

It is a mystery how they've survived this long. They move so slowly; they can't run away. All they can do is calmly stare back at you through ancient eyes.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's a kind of tortoise that might make use of a modern-day arc - the ploughshare tortoise from Madagascar. Only a few hundred are still believed to exist. For years, the nonprofit group, the Turtle Conservancy, has battled against smugglers who sell them on the black market as pets. Reporter Gloria Hillard paid a visit to the Turtle Conservancy's facility in Ojai, California.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANIMALS CHIRPING)

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: The hundreds of animals, large and small, residing at this well-guarded botanical oasis are a very quiet bunch. They have been brought here from countries around the world, like modern-day refugees escaping certain and continuing perils.

ERIC GOODE: Turtles and tortoises are arguably the most threatened group of animals on the planet because out of the 330 species of turtles and tortoises over half of them are threatened with extinction.

HILLARD: Eric Goode is the founder of the Turtle Conservancy. He purchased this land in California's Ojai Valley eight years ago, transforming it into a lush safe haven and breeding facility for some of the most endangered of earth's creatures, threatened by hunters, habitat destruction and now a booming global wildlife trade.

GOODE: In Southeast Asia in particular, the newfound wealth in the middle class enables people to now buy animals and keep them as status symbols. And so this is happening in China, in Indonesia.

HILLARD: One of the most coveted of living status symbols is the ploughshare tortoise. On the black market they can fetch tens of thousands of dollars each. If you were to hold an adult one in your hands they are maybe the size of basketball. Two of them slowly meander toward veterinarian Paul Gibbons, their rounded feet lightly touching the earth like a ballet dancer on tiptoe.

PAUL GIBBONS: We're looking at a tortoise that is incredibly beautiful with its golden shell and this rounded dome.

HILLARD: And carved into the back of the 30 pound female Ploughshare are four large numbers - 7002 - and two block letters: M-G. The engraving , Gibbons says, is a last ditch effort to save the species by making the tortoise less desirable to poachers and wealthy collectors.

GIBBONS: And then we want the hobbyist or the pet owner to think I'm looking for a beautiful tortoise, one that's not damaged.

HILLARD: The engraving is being done not only on those in the captive breeding program but the few hundred remaining in the wild. Gibbons says the procedure does not appear to be a painful one for the tortoise and the wearing down of the shell is part of the aging process. But less certain are the long-term effects.

GIBBONS: In this case, it is clear we are balancing some harm with the benefit to the species and the individual.

HILLARD: There are currently 11 ploughshare tortoises at the sanctuary but they are hoping that number goes up. Gibbons points to a ploughshare nestled next to a large rock - a female.

GIBBONS: She has mated with the male and the eggs are now two and half months old. We're seeing signs that we believe they might be fertile but were not certain yet.

HILLARD: Nothing would make Turtle Conservancy's Eric Goode happier than welcoming captive-bred ploughshare hatchlings into the world.

GOODE: On one hand tortoises have lived more than 250 million years. They've outlived the dinosaurs and they precede the dinosaurs. On the other hand, man is able to exterminate them very, very quickly.

HILLARD: It is a mystery how they've survived this long. They move so slowly - they can't run away. All they can do is calmly stare back at you through ancient eyes. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.