Could petty vandalism save endangered tortoises?
The idea of painting random numbers and symbols onto a living creature is pretty unappealing to most animal lovers. Animals of any species are at their best and most beautiful as nature intended them and the idea of defacing that coat or that shell goes against that core belief. Imagine your pet tortoise with markings scratched into their shells or paint over them – it would be petty vandalism of the most pointless order. Now imagine if that tortoise was a wild, endangered species and these acts of damaging a beautiful shell were the last resort in saving their lives. This is the drastic step being taken in Madagascar by conservationists desperately trying to save the Ploughshare Tortoise from poachers and traffickers.
Madagascar’s Ploughshare Tortoises are in trouble and this controversial strategy may be their best hope.
Tortoises come in all different shapes and sizes and these tiny Ploughshares are particularly beautiful with their striking black and gold shells. This beauty comes at a high price and they are worth thousands of dollars on the international black market, making them a big target for poachers and a priority for conservationists already concerned with their dwindling numbers.For some they are simply pretty, exotic pets that are easily imported to be played with as juvenilles; for others the tortoise attached is worthless and the large, intricately patterned shell is just a trophy. The scale of the problem was seen in 2013 when smugglers were caught with 54 of them in a Thai airport. This may not seem like a massive number at first but when you consider that this constituted 10% of the estimated wild population at the time, it was clear that drastic steps had to be taken.
A team from Durrell Wildlife Conservation Park have been working at a captive breeding centre in Ankarafansika National Park to increase numbers but efforts have been under threat from the poachers that continue to target this growing population of small, easily-transportable and perfectly formed animals. Once a tortoise is released into the wild there is a good chance that it walks into their hands and on a plane. The solution that has been devised is to stop the poachers from wanting these animals for their shells and the new releases are now being engraved with their own their own MG serial number.
Understandably, conservationists are torn on the issue and there are some deep concerns from wildlife lovers.
Rescuing animals from illegal trade and giving them a second chance in captivity is the ideal scenario for most conservationists and wildlife lovers. We are meant to save these wonderful creatures and punish the offenders and to some, this drastic approach can be seen as a punishment for the turtle before they even reach the hands of the traffickers. Durrell’s team say they would rather not have to do this at all but the benefits are outweighing the cons.
The biggest issue for many looking at the photos and watching the footage is the use of a small drill to carve these distinguishing serial numbers into the shell – it automatically makes you wince a little. The staff are careful and are convinced that the animals feel little more than discomfort from the vibrations because of the lack of feeling in that top layer of the shell. Naturally, they are careful not to go too deep that they get close to the bone. Critics question why a gentle laser could not be used instead of a basic drill but this method is cheap, portable and quick – time and money are never on the side of the conservationist.
The prospect of robbing every single Ploughshare of its beauty is a big ask and it is easy to look at the negatives here but the bigger picture is surely much brighter. If a tortoise can wander its natural habitat, oblivious of the message its shell now provides and no longer of worth to the traders, there is nothing to stop it from continuing to do so for the rest of its natural life. Poachers have confirmed that these defaced animals are no longer valuable or of interest so this small population may have a chance to finally multiply and survive.
How far do we go to make creatures unprofitable and save them?
The success of the scheme will raise some important questions about the potential of this approach on the war on poachers but it also leads to concerns over what else we may have to do to stop the world’s most prized and beautiful animals from ending up in the wrong hands. Ploughshare tortoises are lucky as this is a temporary moment in human hands with minimal impact; other creatures will be more difficult to save in this way.
In Nambia, some rhino horns are removed to decrease the animal’s value and this is even more shocking for wildlife lovers – taking away the horn takes away an important part of that animal. The question we have to ask is whether it is a worthwhile sacrifice for the life of that animal and the survival of a species. If the best way to target poachers is to make their prey unappealing and, more to the point, unprofitable, how far are we prepared to go with these measures? We can start with a little petty vandalism with minimal side effects but where are we going to end up?