Imagine having a pet in your family for 79 years and through four generations. Now imagine that during that time your pet became an endangered species. Finally, imagine having that pet stolen from your backyard.

That's what happened to Harry Barritt of London's Bromley borough. His family's beloved spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca), first owned by his grandmother, was stolen from their farm last week, one of a string of tortoise-nappings that also claimed two other pets from another family in the same town on the same day.

Like many tortoises, the spur-thighed tortoise is a threatened species, listed as "vulnerable" to extinction by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and sale of the animals is strictly limited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The sale of most tortoises, including the spur-thighed tortoise and its related subspecies, is also now restricted in the U.K. and the rest of the European Union under E.U.-wide legislation, which controls the sale, transport and possession of the endangered reptiles. But the ban just seems to make some people more determined to own these rare animals. Police say the three stolen tortoises could each fetch around $9,000 on the black market.

"Thousands of people just want a tortoise and will buy them, no questions asked," Rick Wilton, owner of a legal tortoise-breeding facility, told the Daily Mirror.

In a related incident, seven endangered tortoise babies were stolen from a U.K. sanctuary last year, most of them so young they required special care. Police at the time believed they were "stolen to order" for a collector.

Scotland Yard commented on last week's case, saying, "The tortoises are of considerable sentimental value to the owners. The fact that we have had three stolen over a weekend must surely qualify Bromley as the tortoise-theft capital of the country."

Photo: Spur-thighed tortoise, via Wikipedia