Wildlife smuggling is unfortunately not uncommon. At least one smuggler is caught and arrested almost every day somewhere around the world — often in the act of smuggling an endangered species. But it's not every day that a man is caught smuggling more than 10 percent of an entire species' population.
Thai authorities recently arrested a 38-year-old man who was carrying a bag containing 54 ploughshare tortoises (Astrochelys yniphora) and 21 radiated tortoises (Astrochelys radiata), reports mongabay.com. Though both species are endangered, the ploughshare tortoise is truly on the edge. Experts estimate that only about 400 still survive in the wild, making it one of the rarest land tortoises in the world. The 54 tortoises found in the smuggler's bag represent 13 percent of the species' population.
The Thai man caught with the bag, identified as O. Visarnkol, was arrested on site. Authorities also traced the bag's ownership to a Malagasy woman, Clara Rahantamalala, who was also arrested. She was in the process of traveling from Madagascar, which is where these endemic species call home.
"The Thai authorities have placed the animals in a government rescue center — the Bang Pra Breeding Center in Chonburi," Chris Shepherd, who works with the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, told mongabay.com. "It is hoped they will be repatriated back to Madagascar as soon as possible. The longer they are held in Thailand, where the climate and conditions are not the same as in Madagascar, and therefore not suitable, the higher the likelihood of higher mortality rates. Furthermore, there are experts in Madagascar ready to accept and care for the seized tortoises."
The ploughshare tortoise is classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. The entire population is found within a 25 to 60 square-kilometer range around Baly Bay in northwestern Madagascar. The range consists mostly of dry forest and savanna, conditions much different than the humid weather prevalent in Thailand where the smuggled animals were confiscated. The rarity of the species has increased their value on the illegal pet trade. They are also prized for their uniquely designed shells.
The closely related radiated tortoise is also in peril. Scientists suggest that the species could go extinct by mid-century unless conservation efforts are ramped up. Both of these tortoise species represent the only living members of their genus, so losing them would cut short a branch of the evolutionary tree.
Smuggling for the pet trade is the largest threat to both species, though habitat loss (primarily due to fires started to clear land for cattle grazing), poaching, and predation by the non-native bushpig is also of great concern.
"Every individual is incredibly valuable to the survival of the species," said Shepard.
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