As 2011 comes to a close Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust is celebrating 25 successful years of saving species from extinction in Madagascar with the reintroduction into the wild of 20 captive-bred ploughshare tortoises, or angonoka, the world’s most threatened tortoise and the first species Durrell worked with in Madagascar.

Recently 20 tortoises were moved from the breeding centre at Ankarafantsika National Park to a secure site within their natural habitat in preparation for their release into the wild. The animals are marked and fitted with microchips and radio transmitters for close monitoring.

The tortoises’ arrival in their native land coincided with the annual Festival Angonoky on 24th and 25th November in Soalala, a two-day festival celebrating the communities’ commitment to conserving the ploughshare tortoise.

The celebrations at Ankarafantsika and Soalala were attended by Dr Lee Durrell, the Trust’s Honorary Director, who said: “Madagascar will always hold a very special place in my heart and I am delighted that we are able to celebrate Durrell’s 25 years of success in the Island with this remarkable achievement, the release of twenty ploughshare tortoises. However we must not forget that whilst this is undoubtedly a huge step forward, the future of this species still hangs in the balance and we must continue to address the threats affecting the species, not least the illegal pet trade.”

When Durrell started working in Madagascar in 1986, the ploughshare tortoise was on the brink of extinction due to the loss of its habitat around Baly Bay. Responding to this emergency situation, the Government of Madagascar invited Durrell to set up a breeding centre at Ankarafantsika as a safety net for the species which would allow future reintroduction into the wild. This was the first in-situ conservation breeding programme in Madagascar and has been highly successful, producing over 400 angonoka.

In addition to the breeding centre, Durrell is now working with communities in the Baly Bay area to help reduce threats to the wild population of ploughshare tortoises, such as bush fires. Through the conservation efforts, the tortoise’s native habitat was declared a National Park in 1998 – the first such park created to save a single species in Madagascar.

However in recent years, illegal trafficking in tortoises for the Asian pet trade has exploded, and this is now the greatest threat to the survival of the ploughshare tortoise. So many of these tortoises have been poached that it is estimated that there could be more ploughshare tortoises held illegally as pets than there are in the wild.

Despite this recent reintroduction, the latest positive step in Durrell’s ongoing ploughshare programme, this species remains extremely close to extinction. Given the pressures which continue to face the wild population there is a real threat of seeing this species going extinct in the wild. In fact without Durrell’s efforts over the past quarter of a century the world could well have lost this ancient reptile already. Effective Government action is imperative and Durrell and its partners continue to work with all parties to ensure that the progress made so far has not been in vain.

Richard Lewis, Programme Director for Durrell Madagascar said: “We are facing a huge challenge to prevent the ploughshare tortoise from being lost forever in the wild due to smuggling for the pet trade. But with continued commitment from the local communities, the Malagasy Government and the international conservation community we can protect the tortoise’s habitat and halt the illegal trafficking.”

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