Tortoises are among the most endangered species on the planet, and a good shell can fetch tens of thousands of dollars. In order to protect the world’s tortoises, conservationists are defacing their most desirable asset: the shell. For years conservationists have struggled to preserve tortoises, only to face increased hunting and poaching. But reducing the value of the thing that attracts buyers – the shell – may make the threat more manageable.

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Of the 330 species of turtles and tortoises in the world, over half of them are threatened or endangered. For an animal that has survived since before the dinosaurs, it is shocking the speed at which human beings have eliminated them. One endangered tortoise, the ploughshare tortoise, is thought to have been reduced to just a few hundred remaining animals.

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At the Turtle Conservancy, led by Eric Goode in California’s Ojai Valey, a few of these rare tortoises have found a new home. But in the Asian markets, people scramble to obtain ploughshare’s shells or living tortoises as pets because they are a status symbol, spending tens of thousands of dollars. So conservationists decided that by defacing the shell, they could discourage poachers and collectors. Not only have the tortoises in the conservancy had the treatment, but conservationists are doing it to wild tortoises as well.

Each shell is carved with a unique number and two letters to represent where the tortoise originated. Since shells wear down naturally and it doesn’t appear to cause any pain to the animal, conservationists are hoping to trade a little harm for a lot of benefit so that the endangered animals can make a comeback. So far, it is too soon to tell if the strategy is having an impact, but conservationists hope to continue if the process proves successful.


Images from the Turtle Conservancy and Julian Mason

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