- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Southern California conservationists are carving up the beautiful golden shells of rare tortoises to protect them from poachers.

The ploughshare tortoise is on the brink of extinction after decades of intense collecting, hunting and habitat destruction. A nonprofit turtle center in Ventura County is engraving 2-inch-high identification codes on the backs of the animals so that they can be easily identified if sold on the international black market.

“It’s heartbreaking that it’s come to this but it’s the right thing to do,” Paul Gibbons, managing director of the Turtle Conservancy’s Behler Chelonian Center, told the Los Angeles Times (https://lat.ms/Lensa9).

Two turtles flown in from Taiwan were marked Tuesday. They were seized there in 2008 and the female laid eggs in November. The eggs are being incubated, but it’s unclear whether they are fertile, Gibbons said.

The center hopes to mark all 360 ploughshares in captive breeding programs around the world and 300 in the wild.

The shells of two confiscated ploughshares were engraved at the Singapore Zoo in December.

So far, no marked tortoises have shown up in illegal markets.

The engraving lasts for the life of the tortoise, which is roughly 160 years.

The ploughshare is the world’s rarest tortoise and each one can sell for tens of thousands of dollars on the Asian black market, conservationists said.

Dozens of other turtle and tortoise species also are endangered.

In October, the Turtle Conservancy helped mark the shells of 150 Burmese star tortoises in Myanmar.

Last week, more than 8,000 pig-nosed turtles were found hidden in suitcases at an Indonesian airport. They were believed headed for China and Singapore.

In December authorities at a Thai airport checking unclaimed luggage arriving from Bangladesh discovered 432 protected tortoises and 52 black pond turtles, valued at about $110,000.

In March, Thai officials confiscated 54 ploughshare tortoises that were found in the suitcases of two people trying to enter the country.

The conservancy also tries to breed rare turtles and tortoises. An Indian spotted turtle hatched on Monday.

“Last year, we had 294 hatchlings from 13 species,” said Christine Light, the conservancy’s collection manager. “Each one of those hatchlings was a little win for our side.”

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Information from: Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com

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