Will defacing the ploughshare tortoise save it?

November 7, 2015 • 2:30 pm

This was reported on the BBC in June, but I have well over 900 draft posts that I’ve never put up, and I found this one which is still timely. It’s a report of a unique method of conserving animals that are endangered because they have one desirable feature: deface that feature. In this case it’s the angonaka tortoise, also known as the ploughshare tortoise (Astrochelys yniphora), a tortoise endemic to Madagascar which is long-lived and has a beautiful shell:

Photo from Wikipedia

They’re poached and smuggled not because the shell has curative properties, but because they are beautiful pets. As the BBC reports:

Ploughshare tortoises are highly prized for their distinctive gold and black shells and fetch exceptionally high prices on the international black market. [JAC: the story notes later that “One site listed a ploughshare tortoise over 30 years old with a price tag of $37,900. A young adult that was 10 years old was priced at $14,200 and a baby of 8 months at $1400.” That’s a lot of dosh!]

Efforts to steal the animals from their native Madagascar are so relentless that there may only be fewer than 500 left.

So the tortoises are now having their shells permanently engraved with a large serial number together with the initials “MG” for Madagascar.

The hope is that deliberately making the animals less attractive will reduce or even eliminate demand for them.

. . . The only habitat where the ploughshare tortoises live in the wild – a remote and arid stretch of sand, rock and bamboo at Baly Bay in northwest Madagascar – has been turned into a national park to offer protection.

Here’s its habitat, from Wikipeda. Squint hard!:


Here’s a video about the project:

People have objected to this, but it’s been heard that dealers claim that an etched tortoise has no value, so I do support this scheme, which is analogous to cutting the horns of of endangered rhinos. I’m not sure, though, how much this will stem the poaching, since the animals are kept as illegal pets, and an etched pet is still a live pet. And identifying it as illegal doesn’t require etching since the animals are so distinctive.

h/t: Robin

19 thoughts on “Will defacing the ploughshare tortoise save it?

  1. I’ve got an old draft post about this too. I guess I’ll delete it now. 🙂

    It’s sad this needs to be done just because of the selfishness of humanity.

  2. It’s a desperate move. I hope it helps. But when will it be possible to stop the engraving? Maybe some day down the road humans will “evolve” into a kind, generous, and rational creature who would not think of keeping wild animals. Maybe.

  3. It is sad to have to deface them but from the tortoise’s POV (really the only one that should matter) certainly one of the least invasive procedures imaginable.

  4. Shades of cutting the horn off rhinos to make them less attractive to poachers. And there have been claims – I’m not sure how well supported – that elephants have been reducing tusk size in response to the selection pressure of hunting (have there been enough generations for such an effect to show up?).
    Very bad that they feel the need to do this, and I’m quite dubious that it’ll work. It’s hard to think like one of these deranged collectors, because “deranged” is the word.

  5. Let us hope this helps.
    There are other beautiful tortoises that are similarly threatened. One that I found by looking around is the Burmese Star tortoise; critically endangered for much the same reason.

  6. They should engrave the shell with a curse “whoever sells me will die a horrible death after watching his/her family will slowly die.” These people strike me as superstitious so after a while you may no longer need to even carve that into the shell.

    Sure is a cute tortoise with a cute tortoise face.

    1. “engrave the shell with a curse”
      What a terrific idea. The ‘his/her’ bit kind of spoils the flow though. There have got to be ways around that problem. ‘their family’?

      1. I hear the call … The call of Chthulu.
        Potential poll question : out of 36k followers, how many have an entry in the phone for Chthulu, so they can excuse themselves from a conversation with “got to take this call. It’s Chthulu. ”
        [raises hand]

  7. OTOH, with a population estimated in the under – thousand range, markings like that are almost out of the “how to do a capture/ recapture population estimate” manual. Which may be a perfectly justifiable procedure in itself.

  8. I would suggest implanting a tracking chip and then use it to catch the smugglers. Then we can engrave the smugglers with the letter MG to deter poaching and smuggling.

  9. I read a BBC article today about efforts to save Rhinos. In addition to defacing the horns, one fellow is genetically engineering a microbe to produce Rhino horn. He is striving to include Rhino DNA so that buyers will not be able to tell if the Rhino once that technology becomes available.

    Another group is injecting substances into horns which will make the medicinal users sick with nausea, vomiting and severe cramps. Yet another group is putting GPS units and collars on Rhinos that are monitored. When the heart rate fluctuates rapidly due to stress, rangers will be immediately dispatched and hopefully make collared Rhinos not worth the risk.

  10. It would be better to use the engraver on the dealers and buyers of the tortise shell. “I’m a greedy dimwit” or words of similar meaning engraved across the forehead should do.

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