Branded, with rea­son

Rare tor­toises are branded to make them unattrac­tive to poach­ers.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ECO WATCH - By LOUIS SA­H­A­GUN

THE boom­ing il­le­gal in­ter­na­tional wildlife trade has forced con­ser­va­tion­ists to do the un­think­able – brand the golden domes of two of the rarest tor­toises on Earth to re­duce their black mar­ket value by mak­ing it eas­ier for au­thor­i­ties to trace them if stolen.

“It’s heart­break­ing that it’s come to this, but it’s the right thing to do,” Paul Gib­bons, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the non-profit Tur­tle Con­ser­vancy’s Behler Ch­elo­nian Cen­ter in Ven­tura County, Los An­ge­les, said as he gen­tly placed a 13.5kg adult fe­male ploughshare tor­toise on a small ta­ble.

With a steady hand and an elec­tric en­grav­ing tool, he carved an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion code on the high, rounded shell as the crea­ture with weary eyes and gleam­ing cara­pace peered calmly into the dis­tance. The tor­toise was branded for life, which in her case would be roughly 160 years.

“We’ve blem­ished her nat­u­ral beauty, so she’s just a num­ber in a sys­tem now,” Gib­bons said. “No 7001 MG.” The 5cm by 4cm block fig­ures were placed at the top of the tur­tle’s back, a lo­ca­tion cho­sen to avoid in­ter­fer­ing with the ex­pan­sion of the shell, which grows at the edges.

The con­ser­vancy’s goal is to mark ev­ery one of the es­ti­mated 360 ploughshares in cap­tive breed­ing pro­grammes around the world and the 300 be­lieved to be re­main­ing in the wild.

So far, no rare tor­toise or tur­tle with iden­ti­fi­ca­tion mark­ings has turned up in il­le­gal mar­kets mon­i­tored by law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties, con­ser­va­tion­ists said.

Decades of in­tense col­lect­ing, hunt­ing and habi­tat de­struc­tion have brought that species and dozens of oth­ers to the brink of ex­tinc­tion. Now, sanc­tu­ar­ies and zoos are us­ing vis­i­ble iden­ti­fi­ca­tion marks – shell notches, clipped toe­nails, paint, laser in­scrib­ing, tat­toos and en­grav­ing – as a tool to fight poach­ing and dis­suade wealthy col­lec­tors will­ing to pay tens of thou­sands of dol­lars for crit­i­cally en­dan­gered tur­tles and tor­toises.

The shells of two con­fis­cated ploughshare tor­toises were en­graved at the Sin­ga­pore Zoo in De­cem­ber. In Oc­to­ber, the Tur­tle Con­ser­vancy helped mark the shells of 150 Burmese star tor­toises in Myan­mar.

Keep­ing rare tur­tles and tor­toises safe, how­ever, will re­quire a level of se­cu­rity that at this point is elu­sive at best. A week ago, In­done­sian of­fi­cials at Soekarno-Hatta In­ter­na­tional Air­port in Jakarta res­cued more than 8,000 baby pig-nosed tur­tles hid­den in suit­cases and be­lieved headed for China and Sin­ga­pore. In De­cem­ber, Royal Thai Cus­toms of­fi­cials con­fis­cated a suit­case con­tain­ing 62 rare ra­di­ated tor­toises at Bangkok’s Su­varn­ab­humi In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

In Novem­ber, au­thor­i­ties in a Thai air­port dis­cov­ered 432 pro­tected tor­toises and 52 black pond tur­tles worth about US$110,000 (RM341,000) in unclaimed lug­gage ar­riv­ing from Bangladesh. In March, au­thor­i­ties seized 54 ploughshare tor­toises found in the suit­cases of two in­di­vid­u­als at­tempt­ing to en­ter Thai­land. Golden coin tur­tles have been sell­ing for thou­sands of dol­lars each since poach­ers re­cently started claim­ing that con­sum­ing ex­tracts from the species could cure can­cer.

The two ploughshare tor­toises marked re­cently were flown in from Tai­wan, where they were seized in 2008. The fe­male now known as No 7001 MG was suc­cess­fully mated last year with the only male ploughshare tor­toise of breed­ing age out­side Mada­gas­car. Five eggs she laid in Novem­ber are be­ing in­cu­bated. They are the first ploughshare tor­toise eggs pro­duced in an in­ter­na­tional con­ser­va­tion pro­gramme.

“We still aren’t sure they are fer­tile,” Gib­bons said. As the rarest tor­toise on Earth, the ploughshare is highly val­ued by global an­i­mal traf­fick­ers and fetches tens of thou­sands of dol­lars on the Asian black mar­ket, con­ser­va­tion­ists say. The same could be said for most of the cold-blooded an­i­mals at the con­ser­vancy, a se­cret com­pound of pad­docks and aquar­i­ums pro­tected by sur­veil­lance cam­eras and elec­tric wire in the foothills of Los Padres Na­tional For­est.

Al­though cer­ti­fied by the Amer­i­can Zoo and Aquar­ium As­so­ci­a­tion, the con­ser­vancy is not open to the pub­lic or listed in the phone book. The only visi­tors are tur­tle bi­ol­o­gists from around the world. Its pri­mary mis­sion is to main­tain colonies of threat­ened and en­dan­gered tor­toises and fresh­wa­ter tur­tles, such as two Su­lawesi tur­tles from In­done­sia con­fis­cated at Los An­ge­les In­ter­na­tional Air­port last Fe­bru­ary. Then there is Daphne, a 40-year-old fe­male giant Gala­pa­gos tor­toise look­ing for a mate.

As col­lec­tion man­ager for the con­ser­vancy, it is Chris­tine Light’s job to pam­per egg clutches un­til they hatch and ba­bies un­til they are old enough to fend for them­selves. “This lit­tle fella hatched on Mon­day,” Light said, hold­ing up an In­dian spot­ted tur­tle about the size of a 50-cent piece.

“Too cute for words, right? Last year, we had 294 hatch­lings from 13 species,” she added with a smile. “Each one of those hatch­lings was a lit­tle win for our side.” – Los An­ge­les Times/McClatchy Tri­bune In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices

Scarred for life: a tor­toise sports a de­faced shell at the Tur­tle Con­ser­vancy’s behler Ch­elo­nian Cen­ter in Los an­ge­les. The shells are de­faced to re­duce their value on the black mar­ket, and the per­ma­nent mark­ing also makes it eas­ier for law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties to trace them. — MCT

Paul Gib­bons (left), man­ag­ing di­rec­tor and vet­eri­nar­ian of the behler Ch­elo­nian Cen­ter, with as­sis­tance from ar­mando Jimenez, uses a drill tool to de­face the golden dome of a ploughshare tor­toise.

The iden­ti­fy­ing mark­ings are placed at the top of the tur­tle’s back, a lo­ca­tion cho­sen to avoid in­ter­fer­ing with the ex­pan­sion of the shell, which grows at the edges.

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