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Last Updated: Monday, 28 January 2008, 00:06 GMT
Rare victory for Madagascar tortoises
By Jonny Hogg
BBC News, Antananarivo

The ploughshare tortoise
The ploughshare tortoise is the rarest in the world

Conservationists are celebrating a double victory over tortoise smugglers in Madagascar.

Earlier this month, a Nigerian man was arrested with 300 tortoises and another 20 have been returned to their habitat after being seized on a neighbouring island.

But campaigners' relief might not last long. The live animal trade, particularly in reptiles, is big business.

The island's unique wildlife, which makes it so exciting for conservationists, also attracts financial interest.

The haul of 300 seized from a house after a tip-off may be the largest in the world, conservationists say.

If buyers continue to exist, then collectors will continue to exist in Madagascar
Felicitee Rejo Fienena
Government official

Collectors could have netted as much as $200,000 (100,000) for them in exotic pet markets.

"Of course I am very happy that the tortoises are still in Madagascar," says Hasina Randriamanampisoa of the Durrell Wildlife Trust.

"But on the other hand I am very frustrated because it means they are still leaving the country."

Global trade

Eight of the tortoises saved were of the rarest species in the world.

Conservationists believe that only about 1,000 of these ploughshare tortoises remain.

Latin name: geochelone yniphora
Called angonoka by the Malagasy
Live in clearings in woods near bamboo forests
Gets the name ploughshare because of a protruding scoop under the head
Males use the scoop to wrestle other males during courtship
They also use the scoop to turn the female over during mating
Hatchlings are 3cm long
Juveniles can take 20 years to reach sexual maturity
There are less than 1,000 left in the wild
The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust has bred 250 in captivity - 40 have been returned to the wild
In 1996, 73 tortoises worth $3m (1.5m) were stolen from a breeding centre on Madagascar

They are found in a small area of north-western Madagascar, and the loss of even a small number would be devastating, conservationists say.

According to the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the ploughshare will be extinct within 10 years if they continue to disappear at the same rate.

It is a global trade. The Nigerian man, who faces up to 10 years if he is convicted, was found with three passports with three different names from three different countries.

The reptiles could have been bound for rare animal markets in Bangkok, Thailand, conservationists say.

Although tortoises are protected, some species are still eaten in parts of the country, but the real risk lies from international collectors.

To buy a tortoise to eat might cost $10 (5). To buy one as a pet might cost you $10,000 (5,000).

"Why do people do it? If you're talking about Malagasy people they are poor, so they can easily be attracted by big bucks from the smugglers," says Mr Randriamanampisoa.

"As far as foreigners are concerned, well I can imagine, some people are so rich they just want something rare in their possession.

"It has something to do with their mind, to possess something that no-one else has."

Cat and mouse

Felicitee Rejo Fienena, who works for the government in southern Madagascar, wants more to be done to protect wildlife.

"If buyers continue to exist on the international market, then collectors will continue to exist in Madagascar," she says.

"Therefore on that point there must be really strong collaboration. On the ground here we're already on alert, we're already mobilised but we must be able to react quickly if we're to get positive results."

The game of cat and mouse between the collectors and the authorities continues.

People trying to protect the tortoises here are wary of advertising the sheer value of the trade for fear of attracting even more fortune-hunters to the island.

On the other hand, if they do not draw attention to the threat the trade causes, for certain species their desirability may lead to their extinction.

Extinction alert for 800 species
12 Dec 05 |  Science/Nature
Wildlife criminals targeted
22 Apr 02 |  UK News
Threat to rare species
25 Feb 01 |  Archive
Country profile: Madagascar
19 Feb 05 |  Country profiles

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