Armed bands of poachers are illegally collecting Madagascar's radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) by the truckload for the lucrative pet and meat trades, according to a report from the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). As a result of this rampant overexploitation the once-common species could be driven into extinction in the next two decades. Radiated tortoises, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful of all turtles, and therefore highly valued in the pet trade, are only found in Madagascar.

"Areas where scores of radiated tortoises could be seen just a few years ago have been poached clean," James Deutsch, director of the WCS's Africa Program, said in a prepared statement. The organizations say they have discovered poaching camps with the remains of thousands of radiated tortoises.

"I can't think of a tortoise species that has undergone a more rapid rate of decline in modern times, or a more drastic contraction in range, than the radiated tortoise," said Rick Hudson, president of the TSA.

Already listed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the radiated tortoise is the only member of its genus.

Madagascar has been in a state of political unrest for the past several years, which has allowed wildlife crime to expand dramatically. The situation has been worsened, according to the WCS and TSA, by years of drought that make it difficult to grow crops, so wild-caught meat is a more important food source for the poverty-stricken populace.

Photo: Radiated tortoise, via Wikipedia