In the Northwest corner of Madagascar lives a species of tortoise with a shell so highly domed and ornate that you might think they came straight out of the mind of a cartoonist. But the Ploughshare tortoise is very real and very rare. It is also the largest and, arguably, the most beautiful of Madagascar's four endemic species of tortoises. Their domed shell and golden color have made them a highly prized pet throughout Asia--so highly prized, in fact, that the illegal pet trade is the leading cause pushing this species ever closer to extinction. With less than 200 of these adults living in an area of about five square miles in Baly Bay National Park, conservationists are expecting these tortoises to disappear from their natural habitat due to poaching in the next two years!
Even with this bleak outlook, we must remain hopeful and do everything we can to save this critically endangered species from extinction. Many great organizations are working to protect this species, both in the wild and in human care. Our Zoo is one of these organizations and contributes to the conservation of this species in two ways. Last year, we offered financial assistance to the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust to heighten the level of security at their breeding center in Madagascar, which poachers have targeted and burglarized on multiple occasions. This facility has produced and successfully released 100 ploughshare tortoises into the wild.
Second, the Zoo houses and cares for a young pair of ploughshare tortoises that fell victim to the illegal pet trade. The two tortoises, that now call the OKC Zoo home, were born in the wilds of Madagascar. Poachers took them from their home as hatchlings but authorities rescued them in transit to Asia. Because no safe place exists to release them in Madagascar, they were brought to the United States to join the existing population of 30 tortoises (most of which were also rescued from the illegal pet trade) and were distributed to zoos throughout the country. Even though Zoo guests are not currently able to view the special tortoises, their presence at the Zoo is hugely important for the conservation of the entire species. We hope that, when our Ploughshare tortoises become old enough, they will join a breeding group to ensure the continued existence of the species.
If you are interested in helping conserve animals like the Ploughshare tortoise, you can participate in our “Round-Up for Conservation” program. Next time you purchase something at the Zoo and someone asks you if you want to “round-up”, just say “yes” and your purchase will be rounded up to the next dollar. Those extra few cents are making a huge impact by going directly into the conservation of a wide variety of species, including this beautiful and endangered tortoise. In fact, last year the Zoo contributed $1,300 from the emergency funding portion of the program to the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust to help secure the Ploughshare tortoise breeding facility in Madagascar.
--Brett Bartek, Zoo animal caretaker