This is the most valuable photo I have ever taken (hence the watermark, sorry about that).
This is Astrochelys yniphora. Its binomial name is a mouthful, but it goes by others: the ploughshare tortoise, or the angonoka.
You may know it as the rarest tortoise in the world.
You take a plane from Switzerland to Paris, Paris to Antananarivo, Antananarivo to Mahajanga. Then an 18 hour boat ride on an old shrimping vessel to a remote village in the Bay of Baly called Soalala. From there, another four hour boat ride in a leaky vessel with an outboard engine that cuts out half way through, forcing you to row the rest of the way. Once you land, another two hour walk in the blazing sun and you reach a single wooden building.
This wooden building is the mess and science building for the WWF/Durrell team who monitor the status of the world’s rarest tortoise in one of its last refuges.
As I have talked about before, these tortoises have been driven to the brink of extinction by a combination of harvesting for consumption, habitat destruction, and now collection for the international black market pet trade.
There is a glimmer of hope still for this species. Durrell is doing some fantastic work with their breeding programme, and they have even introduced captive bred progeny into the wild. But it will be a long uphill struggle for this species.
I saw, in the wild, three individuals. That is about 1% of the global population. This is one of them.
The year that I went to visit the breeding facility in Madagascar, and went out to see the tortoises in the wild, a dozen or so were stolen from one of the captive breeding facilities.
A dozen of the world’s rarest species. That’s about 3-5 percent of the global population.
And it gets worse. Earlier this year, a shipment of 54 wild-caught individuals (that’s a sixth of the global population) were intercepted in Thailand.
It makes me terribly sad that even the most incredible conservation initiatives, run in the best possible way by people who are truly heroes for this species, are undone by a few rich, greedy assholes on the other side of the planet who decide that the ornamentation of their house is more important than the survival of a species.
I am extremely emotionally involved in the plight of this species. I wear a pin of one every day. It is a sobering reminder of the future that the rest of Madagascar’s species will face if drastic solutions are not thought up for many of the island’s gripping problems.
Photo © Mark Scherz, 2005