Endangered tortoises' 'safety net'

Conservationists are launching the first European breeding programme for the critically endangered ploughshare tortoise, it has been announced.

Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, in Jersey, said a boom in the Asian pet trade, where the animals are being sold illegally for high prices, is raising concerns for the future of the Madagascan species.

To try to create a vital "safety net population", the trust has joined forces with Chester Zoo and Rotterdam Zoo, in the Netherlands, to take in 13 rescued tortoises and begin a breeding programme.

Matthias Goetz, head of Durrell's herpetology department, said: "Sadly, an increasing number of animals have been smuggled out of Madagascar through South Asian countries where more and more have been seized by border authorities.

"While it has been possible to repatriate some, this is challenging and if the animals have spent time outside of Madagascar there are disease risks to bringing them back. Equally, establishing a viable international breeding programme for the species has been identified as one of the key approaches to ensuring the species' survival."

Restricted to small fragments of land in the north-west of Madagascar, the tortoise has historically lost much of its habitat to burning for cattle farming. The rarity of the species has made it one of the most sought after reptiles in the illegal pet trade, and individuals are able to command high prices in the markets of South East Asia and beyond.

Ploughshare tortoises are already being kept in captivity in America, where 20 animals are registered within three institutions, but it is the first time that they are involved in a breeding scheme in Europe.

The programme will work alongside the one in the US and dedicated conservation teams in Madagascar. But a quick solution to the problem is not expected.

Dr Gerardo Garcia, curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates for Chester Zoo, said: "As with all things associated with tortoises, it will take a while before these animals are ready to breed. They are only young and it will take a few years for them to reach maturity.

"But what is important is that the European breeding programme has now started and in the future, seized ploughshare tortoises will form part of an international safety net population, should the worst happen to the remaining tortoises in Madagascar."