Washington, April 6 (ANI): Madagascar's radiated tortoise may become extinct within two decades, courtesy hunting and the illegal pet trade, biologists have warned.
Biologists from the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) recently returned from field surveys in southern Madagascar's spiny forest, where the once-abundant tortoises occur.
They found entire regions devoid of tortoises and spoke with local people who reported that armed bands of poachers had taken away truckloads of tortoises to supply open meat markets in towns such as Beloha and Tsihombe.
Poaching camps have been discovered with the remains of thousands of radiated tortoises, and truckloads of tortoise meat have been seized recently.
James Deutsch, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Africa Program, said: "Areas where scores of radiated tortoises could be seen just a few years ago have been poached clean.
"Back then one could hardly fathom that this beautiful tortoise could ever become endangered, but such is the world we live in, and things can - and do - change rapidly."
Brian D. Horne, turtle conservation coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society's Species Program, said: "The rate of hunting of radiated tortoises is similar to the hunting pressure on American bison during the early 19th century, where they were nearly hunted to extinction when they once numbered in the tens of millions."
Tortoise populations near urban centers have crashed with poachers moving closer and closer to protected areas; it is simply a matter of time before those areas are targeted too, the biologists predict.
Rick Hudson, president of the TSA, said: "Radiated tortoises are truly under siege now as never before, and if we can't draw a line in the sand around protected areas, then we will lose this species.
"I can't think of a tortoise species that has undergone a more rapid rate of decline in modern times, or a more drastic contraction in range, than the radiated tortoise. This is a crisis situation of the highest magnitude."
Formerly occupying a vast swath of the southern portion of the island nation of Madagascar - the radiated tortoise was once considered one of the world's most abundant tortoise species, with an estimated population in the millions.
Considered one of the most beautiful tortoise species, it is now ranked as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List.
One of the most troubling trends is that poachers are now entering protected areas (Special Reserves, National Parks, World Heritage Sites) to collect tortoises and the staff there are poorly equipped to patrol and protect populations.
The tortoise cannot survive the current threat of wholesale collection for food markets. Community mobilization linked to sustainable habitat protection is needed to save this unique ritically endangered species. (ANI)