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Conservationists Are Intentionally Carving the Shells of Turtles on the Brink of Extinction

There are as few as 500 ploughshare tortoises remaining in the wild, mostly in Madagascar, and poachers can get $50,000 or more on the black market for one of the beautiful black and gold animals.
Photo via Freeland Foundation/EPA

Conservationists in Madagascar are deliberately disfiguring the shells of highly valuable, extremely endangered tortoises in hopes of saving them from poachers.

There are as few as 500 ploughshare tortoises living in their only natural habitat, the swamps of a remote national park in northwest Madagascar. Beautiful gold and black shells featuring concentric growth rings set the tortoise apart from types. For years, environmental degradation and predation were its biggest threats, but poaching has risen to the top — including a 2013 airport arrest in Thailand, when smugglers nearly made off with 54 live ploughshares, about 10 percent of the estimated wild population, packed in their suitcases.

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"It's really just a matter of time until the tortoise goes extinct. They're getting poached out quickly, there's so few left," Eric Goode, Founder and President of the Turtle Conservancy, told VICE News. "The remaining range is so tiny that it's possible that in the next five or so years the turtle could be extinct in the wild."

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Incentive for poachers is high. Because they live for decades and are so uncommon, the turtles are desirable pets, which double as status symbols. They're especially popular in Asia and can fetch $50,000 or more on the black market.

"It's prodigious to own an animal this rare. People want to be able to say they have this animal that's nearly extinct," Goode told VICE News. "We have to take pretty serious measures, and do virtually anything to try to stop the poaching."

That's why several conservation groups working in the country, including the Turtle Conservancy, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and Conservation International, are engraving shells with "MG" and a large serial number, in a bid to deter poaching. The plan was controversial when first proposed, but several environmentalists told VICE News that the dire situation needed creative action. Goode and Russell Mittermeier, president emeritus of Conservation International, likened the strategy to dehorning a rhino to make it less valuable to poachers.

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"It's unfortunately essential. Nobody wanted to [engrave] just for the hell of it," Mittermeier told VICE News. "People like things that are rare and endangered, but as far as the tortoises are concerned, they don't really care. They just want to live out their lives fully without being stuck in a suitcase and sent off to China."

In their shells, ploughshares have an unusually thick layer of keratin, a protein that's in rhinoceros horns as well as human fingernails. While other species of turtles might be harmed by being marked, this layer protects the ploughshares and makes them a perfect candidate for the preemptive engraving.

Related: Namibia is dehorning rhinos to combat rising poaching

Madagascar, where more than 92 percent of the population lives on under $2 a day, is one of the poorest countries in the world. Efforts to save the turtle were thrown into chaos in 2009 when the Madagascan government fell in a coup, ushering in an era of poaching that Mittermeier called "a free-for-all where everybody did what they wanted."

"The wildlife trade is a nasty business. Animals of any imaginable kind, regardless of how endangered they are, are getting taken out of the wild and sold — and the rarer they are the more valuable they are," Mittermeier told VICE News. "But if people want them for aesthetic purposes, they're not going to want them with their shells engraved."

Watch the VICE News documentary, "Poaching, Drugs, and Murder in Costa Rica"

Follow Darren Ankrom on Twitter: @darrenankrom