Two critically endangered Madagascar Big-headed Turtles join conservation programme in UK

Animal Stories

Two live Madagascar Big-headed Turtles (Erymnochelys madagascariensis), were discovered inside the baggage of an outbound passenger at Lok Ma Chau Spur Line Control Point in April 2018. The 27-year-old passenger was arrested. As the turtles’ shells and limbs were wrapped in plastic, local authorities suspected the case also contravened animal cruelty regulations. The turtles were seized by the Authorities and transferred to KFBG Wild Animal Rescue Centre for temporary holding and care. The smuggler in this case was fined only HKD800, which sadly is unlikely to have a deterrent effect regarding the trade in endangered species.

New Home
On 16th August 2019 KFBG transferred the two Turtles to the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT) in UK. They will form the nucleus of a new captive breeding programme with DWCT and act as education ambassadors for the in-situ conservation programme that the DWCT runs in Madagascar.

In Decline
Madagascar Big-headed Turtles, endemic to Madagascar, are a species of high conservation concern. In 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which assesses the conservation status of animals in the wild, raised their level of threat from “Endangered” to Critically Endangered”. This is only one step away from being extinct in the wild. The species is in serious decline, population numbers having dropped over 80% in the past 75 years. They were also listed as one of the world's 25 most endangered turtles by the Turtle Conservation Fund in 2018. The turtles are heavily poached as food, both for local subsistence living and commercially, and they are facing increasing pressure from a rapidly growing human population in Madagascar. The present case highlights the fact that they are also smuggled across borders illegally to supply the exotic pet trade.

Reptile Smuggling and Madagascar
This is not the first time we have received endangered wildlife from Madagascar following seizure by the Authorities. The Rescue Centre has also received 40 Ploughshare Tortoises also endemic to Madagascar and ranked as the most endangered tortoise on the planet. Furthermore, we received more than 200 Madagascan Radiated Tortoises confiscated between 2011 and 2015. Ploughshare and Radiated Tortoises are both Critically Endangered species. The wildlife trade through the Hong Kong SAR contributes toward a global extinction crisis affecting many species of Chelonians.

From a TRAFFIC (the wildlife trade monitoring network) study, between 2006 and 2015, Madagascar exported a significant number of live CITES-listed specimens to East and Southeast Asia: most were reptiles, plants or amphibians. The top 3 importers were Japan (67,762 individuals), Thailand (16,651 individuals) and Hong Kong (13,106 individuals).

What can you do?
The public should be reminded of the negative impacts that the wildlife trade has on species and the role of Hong Kong in tackling wildlife crime. A key message is to urge members of the public not to buy wild animals as pets as this only encourages the rampant trade in endangered species.

Find out more about the work of Durrell Conservation Trust:

When discovered by the Authorities the turtles were cruelly wrapped in plastic tape. (Photo: Hong Kong Customs)


After several months care, KFBG Rescue Team Staff prepare the Madagascar Big-headed Turtles for the long journey to their new home at the Durrell Conservation Trust in Jersey, UK. (Photo: KFBG)

The turtles that were rescued from a smuggler in Hong Kong arrived safely at the Durrell Conservation Trust and both started to feed immediately when the staff offered pellets (Photo: Nadine Wohl, Durrell Conservation Trust)