The ploughshare tortoise, or Angonoka in Malagasy, gets its name from the plough-shaped extension on the front of the shell. Driven to very low population numbers through historical exploitation and habitat destruction, Lee Durrell accepts the challenge to use Durrell's expertise in captive-breeding to try and save the world's rarest tortoise from extinction.
The project aims to conserve the ploughshare tortoise in its remaining habitat around Baly Bay, north-west Madagascar. Durrell pioneers conservation measures built around community-based conservation, empowering local people to protect their wildlife and cultural heritage. The project goes on to work with over 18,000 people in 52 villages.
Originally stocked with 20 confiscated animals, this is the first captive breeding facility to keep and breed ploughshare tortoises in the world. The centre was established as part of a Recovery Plan developed by the IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group in 1982 and Durrell takes the lead in the implementation of most of the elements of this plan.
The customized facilities and specialist care enables the captive population to successfully produce the first of 611 baby ploughshare tortoises. As this species needs 15 years to reach breeding age and faces catastrophic threats, this captive assurance population becomes a crucial lifeline to prevent the extinction of the species.
Durrell works closely with local communities to promote small-scale conservation activities and environmental awareness in and around Baly Bay. Regional workshops facilitate communities to adopt key conservation practices, such as the creation of fire-breaks which reduce impacts of bush fires, promoting the recovery of the ploughshare tortoise.
This devastating event highlights the growing threat of the illegal wildlife trade to the species. Ploughshares are coveted by the illegal international pet trade as their golden domed shell and rarity make them one of the most sought after tortoises by collectors. Some of the stolen tortoises are later discovered in the Netherlands and Belgium.
A national park is established as a result of Durrell's field research and commitment from the local communities, the first in Madagascar to be created to protect a single species. It is later managed by Madagascar National Parks. It is hoped this protection will deter poachers from illegal activity and reduce habitat loss.
The tortoises are released as a trial; survival rates and health of the tortoises are monitored closely to establish whether releasing captive-bred animals can be used as a viable conservation management strategy to support the species' restoration. The success of this initial trial leads to further releases over the next 16 years.
Following the success of the initial trial and the captive-breeding centre, further releases are conducted in an effort to establish a self-sustaining wild population of ploughshare tortoises. Over several reintroductions the release population eventually accounts for approximately 9% of the global population of wild tortoises.
Using IUCN Red List criteria the extinction risk of the species is uplisted to Critically Endangered during a workshop hosted by Durrell in Madagascar. Despite efforts to mitigate local threats, a Species Action Plan developed during the workshop highlights the illegal wildlife trade as the most imminent threat to the species' survival.
To commemorate this massive conservation achievement, a further 20 captive-bred ploughshare tortoises are released into the wild in Baly Bay National Park. Since 1998, over 600 tortoises have been successfully bred at the captive facility and the released population of 80 tortoises surviving in the wild is a priceless legacy.
Evidence of breeding confirms that the reintroduced tortoises are self-sustaining; this is a huge milestone for the success of the project and the restoration of the species in the wild. The success continues with nineteen babies found to date at the release site. It is vital that conservation efforts are maintained for their protection.
Durrell is contacted and immediately sends out experienced veterinarian Tsanta Rakotonanahary to assess the health of the tortoises. The animals represent over 5% of the estimated wild population and the seizure highlights the global threat and impact that poaching and smuggling for the international pet trade continues to have on the ploughshare tortoise.
The golden domed shell of the ploughshare tortoise is highly valued on the black market and illegal poaching is pushing this species to the brink of extinction. Engraving shells is completely painless for the animals, deters poachers and makes individuals easy to identify both for researchers and enforcement agencies.
In January 2015, the team makes a gruelling two day 150km journey to Beaboaly, the release site for 20 captive bred ploughshare tortoises. Accompanied by local dignitaries, schoolchildren and representatives from conservation partners, the release is a major milestone and a goal that was set over ten years ago - to put 100 animals back into the wild.