On Friday, March 15, authorities in Thailand intercepted two wildlife smugglers trying to carry hundreds of endangered tortoises through Suvarnabhumi International Airport. Among the animals recovered were 54 critically endangered ploughshare tortoises (Astrochelys yniphora) from Madagascar. The entire wild population for this species is estimated at just 400 to 600 tortoises, meaning this seizure represented something in the neighborhood of 10 percent of the entire species.

Things got worse from there.

The news of the seizure made headlines around the world, but what has not been widely reported until now is that within a few weeks of the rescue nearly half of the tortoises had died, a terrible blow toward efforts to keep this species from extinction. The remaining tortoises, which were destined for the illegal pet trade in Thailand and China before their rescue, are currently in a Thai wildlife rescue center while international organizations see what they can do to help keep the rest alive and healthy, or even eventually return them to Madagascar. Unfortunately, that might not be an easy task.

"Legally these animals are supposed to be held as evidence until the trial," says Jim Juvik, senior scientist at the Turtle Conservancy and one of the men who actually rediscovered this species in 1971 a few decades after it was thought to have gone extinct. The Conservancy is arguing that simple photographs would be as useful as evidence as the tortoises themselves, but even if the Thai government accepts that several additional factors complicate the matter. For one thing, no one knows if the ploughshares have been exposed to any diseases, which would make it hard or impossible to return them to the wild. For another, Madagascar is in the middle of several years' worth of political turmoil, so even though the country has expressed interest in having the tortoises repatriated, this objective is low on its list of priorities.

We also don't know why so many of the tortoises died in the first place. The smuggled animals were all juveniles, which can survive in the wild for six months or more without water, so dehydration probably wasn't a factor. They'll eat almost any vegetation, so it also probably wasn't lack of food. Eric Goode, president of the Conservancy, speculates that they may have experienced some sort of trauma during their cross-continental journey, although even that is uncertain.

"Frankly I'm surprised that so many died," Goode says, noting that smugglers have a financial incentive to keep tortoises healthy and alive. Luckily the Thai government has expressed interest in receiving assistance in keeping the remaining turtles both healthy and secure from possible theft. Goode reports that they are currently working out the logistics to send a team of veterinarians and other personnel, including a few conservation team members from Madagascar, to Thailand to coordinate the efforts. "The good news is that we can go, and we know that we're allowed to work and help the animals and even move them to a better location," he says.

A long journey

The journey for these 54 ploughshare tortoises began in northwestern Madagascar within the remote Ankarafantsika National Park, which was established after the species was rediscovered there. Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust runs the conservation program for the species in the park, but, as Juvik points out, the turtles are worth so much money on the black market that it is hard to keep them safe. "We spend a lot of money in Madagascar for guards and boats and all kinds of things to protect these animals in their natural habitat, but whatever money we spend is trumped by the wealth of Asia. It overwhelms our little efforts."

The area where the turtles live is so remote that it has little infrastructure and no electricity. Goode says it is very hard to do field work in the region, and even harder to live there. "It's a very, very remote part of Madagascar. The local people survive on a persistence basis, making maybe a dollar a day." This makes the tortoises, which can eventually sell for thousands of dollars apiece on the black market, highly attractive.

Goode says ploughshare tortoises are most active during Madagascar's wet season, which ends roughly in mid-March. That's when Malagasy people (as natives of Madagascar are known) living in the region tend to collect them, usually aiming for small turtles less than 20 centimeters in size, which is less than half of their eventual size. "They collect the smaller animals because they're easier to transport," Goode says. Not only does this mean more profit, it's also easier to hide the smaller animals. "The bigger ones don't fit in a suitcase, and they defecate and urinate a lot."

The poachers usually wait until they have several animals in hand before they try to ship and sell them. "They keep them in a safe-house situation until they have enough to transport," Goode says. "They generally do a pretty good job of keeping them alive. The poachers know you can't sell a sick tortoise."

The journey from Madagascar to Thailand shows that the poachers and smugglers are supported by a large network of accomplices. The tortoises started in the northwestern corner of the country before being transported hundreds of kilometers to an international airport, probably in the city of Mahajanga, where poachers can use Internet cafes to connect to buyers in Asia. Smugglers typically fly from Mahajanga through several islands in the Indian Ocean and on to Nairobi, Kenya, before finally arriving Thailand. In this case, the rescued tortoises were transported through two or three Thai provinces to the wildlife rescue center. Where they end up next remains to be seen.

What happens next?

Keeping the tortoises healthy in captivity shouldn't be hard, Juvik says. "They're tortoises, after all. They're pretty tough creatures." What will be required wherever they end up is security, to ensure that they don't disappear out the back door and back onto the black market.

Survival in Madagascar, however, remains a pressing issue. Years of political upheaval have left the country "even more open for smuggling than it ever was," Juvik says. Many other species have also been heavily exploited. This includes several rare tree species which are destined for the timber market, and the loss of which is devastating habitats for many native species that exist nowhere else on Earth.

Meanwhile, Durrell continues a small captive-breeding program for the ploughshares, with the intention of supplementing current wild populations. That's done some good, but Juvik wonders if that still makes sense while the tortoises are so valued by smugglers. "It's like throwing gold bricks on the ground," he says.

Sadly, Goode says the ploughshares' increasing rarity only makes them more valuable on the black market. So many ploughshare tortoises have been stolen from the wild over the past few years that Goode says "I wouldn't be surprised if within five years they're effectively biologically extinct in the wild." That makes the survival of the remaining rescued tortoises in Thailand all the more important.

Previously in Extinction Countdown:

Photos: Confiscated turtles still wrapped in plastic and tape by P.Tansom/TRAFFIC. A healthy adult ploughshare tortoise, courtesy of the Turtle Conservancy