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Wildlife Watch

78 Rare Tortoises Stolen From Breeding Center

In this week’s crime blotter: a tortoise-taking scheme, bear paw sales, and a prison sentence for four pangolin traffickers. 

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Ploughshare tortoises are critically endangered, in part because traders sell them as pets on the black market.


It’s a mystery: 78 rare tortoises disappeared from a breeding center in Thailand, and it’s an open question as to where they went.

It was supposed to be a happy ending for the creatures, worth a total of $85,000 (three million baht). Authorities seized them from illegal wildlife traders and took them to Bang Phra Water Bird Breeding Station, a state-run facility in eastern Thailand’s Chon Buri province.

But the creatures and their cages' locks vanished on May 23. On Wednesday, the Bangkok Post reported, authorities removed Songklod Phuthong, the head of the facility, and replaced him with a senior forest official named Phadet Laithong. Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation has launched an investigation into the theft.

"These tortoises could not just disappear without anyone knowing,” Thanya Netithammakun, director general of the agency, told the Bangkok Post. "The public needs to know what happened."

Six of the tortoises were ploughshares, named for the ploughlike shape of their lower shells, and 72 were radiated, a name that describes the star pattern on their shells. Prized for their beauty, traders sell both species as pets on the black market, despite an international treaty banning their trade. 

Ploughshares are considered the rarest tortoise species, with only 500 known to be holding on in the forests of northwestern Madagascar. Things have gotten so bad that last year conservationists engraved some of the tortoises’ shells with a serial number and the initials “MG” (for Madagascar) to ward off poachers.

Radiated tortoises, which are also endemic to Madagascar, aren’t faring much better. They’re critically endangered, mainly from habitat loss but also from the pet and meat trades.

Some other wildlife crime busts, convictions, and investigations around the world announced this past week:

LION LOOTERS: Authorities in Limpopo, South Africa, apprehended three Mozambican nationals after receiving a tip that the suspects sold lion heads and paws, the Citizen reports. Cops seized two heads and eight paws and charged the trio with illegal possession of an endangered species. They believe this case might be linked to the poisoning of two white lions in May.

BEAR PAWS: Vietnamese police confiscated 32 bear paws at a checkpoint in Mong Cai town in Hanoi, Vietnam, the Nation says. Authorities allegedly seized the paws from a man behaving suspiciously while carrying a sack on his motorbike. The suspect admitted he was hired by a Chinese man to transport the sack to a location near the Chinese border, according to the Nation.

SCALY ANTEATERS: A court in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, sentenced four people for trafficking pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, Thanhnien News reports. The longest sentence was a year and a half. The critically endangered mammals are sold for their scales and meat. Vietnam bans their sale.

IVORY TRIO: Police in Machinga, a district in southern Malawi, busted three people accused of possessing and intending to sell ivory, according to the Maravi Post, a Malawi news site. Malawi is considered a weak link in the fight against the illegal ivory trade because of its weak laws and enforcement, the publication notes.

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@ngs.org.

Follow Jani Actman on Twitter.

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