by Heather Lowe
A special delivery of some of the world’s rarest reptiles has arrived in the Southeastern United States. Eight critically endangered ploughshare tortoises (Astrochelys yniphora), imported by the TSA, are now residents of Zoo Atlanta and Knoxville Zoo. They may represent the last hope for a species marked for extinction.
Widely considered the world’s most endangered tortoise species, ploughshare tortoises are native only to Madagascar. Despite a concentrated recovery program begun in 1986 by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the population continues to founder due to the combined effects of illegal commerce and habitat destruction. Ongoing demand on a global black market, where ploughshare tortoises are often sold to collectors at higher than the price of gold, may have reduced their numbers to as few as 400 individuals.
In 2008, the Recovery Plan Workshop for the Ploughshare Tortoise suggested the establishment of a captive population outside Madagascar. The founders of that population, a group of 10 tortoises confiscated from illegal traders in Hong Kong and Taipei, were imported to the U.S. by the Turtle Conservancy/Behler Chelonian Center.
Now, a second group of eight ploughshare tortoises have recently been imported to the U.S. by the Turtle Survival Alliance. The tortoises arrived thanks to the cooperation of the TSA’s strategic partner Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden as well as the Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department that initially confiscated the ploughshares entering Hong Kong illegally. The tortoises will be housed at Zoo Atlanta and Knoxville Zoo, with oversight from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP), which manages the breeding and placement of the species in zoos accredited by the AZA.