These two words hardly go together. The word tortoise brings to mind ideas of repose, tranquility, and an almost philosophical, sagely outlook on life. The word mafia, however, invokes memories of movie scenes involving gunfights, swagger, and dark leather jackets. Yet ‘tortoise mafia’ stands for a very real threat that’s pushing some of the world’s rarest species to the brink of extinction.
The tortoise mafia as they are known among conservation circles are a group of organized and armed poachers that prey on Madagascar’s endemic species of tortoises.
A BBC Nature article includes the tortoise mafia among habitat loss and local consumption as factors inMadagascar tortoises’ declining population.Madagascar has currently four Critically Endangered endemic tortoise species: the spider tortoise, the flat-tailed tortoise, the radiated tortoise, and the ploughshare tortoise. The larger radiated tortoise in particular is the primarily preferred species for meat consumption. Its declining population is now shifting pressure on the spider tortoises found in the island.
Armed poachers will stop at nothing to hunt these species, roaming the villages in groups of up to 100. Villagers are unable to stop them as they pick up tortoises by the thousands over the course of several weeks. These creatures are then smuggled abroad to be sold as exotic pets or as ingredients for aphrodisiacs. Madagascar tortoises have been found stuffed by the dozen in suitcases and concealed by flight passengers leaving the country. BBC Nature reported last year that some corrupt government officials of Madagascar itself are allegedly part of the organizations running down these gentle creatures closer to extinction. The tortoise mafia’s activities are fueled by the market for illegal wildlife and rare animal markets in European and Southeast Asian nations. According to reports, wealthy buyers are willing to pay ten thousand dollars for the tortoises. Such easy, big money at stake are driving poachers to greater risk taking and the conservation groups protecting these critically endangered species to drastic measures.
The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust has worked for a quarter of a century in Madagascar to protect its endangered species. The group runs a captive breeding program for tortoises in order to support the declining population in the island. They also recruited local villages to patrol grounds and attached radio transmitters to the tortoises to monitor them. But due to thefts occurring in the breeding enclosures, the conservationists had to resort to a desperate action to try to save the creatures from poaching: they had to deface the beautiful shells with permanent marks and numbers. This is to render them of zero value to the black market and to collectors. The marks also alert custom officers worldwide that the shells are illegally taken from Madagascar’s shores. It’s saddening to see conservation groups resort to actions they don’t want to do in order to stop poachers from running down a beautiful species to irreversible extinction. Organizations such as the tortoise mafia exist for no other reason than to feed a demand that is not rooted in need or necessity, but in avarice and greed.
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