The Ploughshare tortoise (common name) also known as the Astrochelys yniphora (scientific name) is one of the rarest tortoises on earth. The Ploughshare is listed on the ICUN Red List as Critically Endangered and has been on the Red List since at least 1996. (Leuteritz, T). The Ploughshare tortoise is a smallish land tortoise that is approximately 17 inches in length and the adult male can weigh up to 23 lbs. The adult females are just a bit smaller being about 15 inches long and weighing up to 19 pounds.
They have a high mottled colored carapace (shell) that is gold and brown, and it is highly arched. The tortoise’s shell has prominent, ridged growth rings on each scute (shell segment). The gular (foremost) scute of the plastron (lower shell) is narrow and extends forward between the front legs, curving upward toward the neck. When males engage in combat they use their gular scute to ram, push and occasionally overturn each other. It is this growth that gives the Ploughshare its common name.
The Ploughshare tortoise is endemic to northwestern Madagascar in the Baly Bay and Cape Sada Peninsula area near the town of Soalala. (Bove, Jennifer)The habitat for the Ploughshare tortoise is dry forest and bamboo scrub. With the average temperature range for the year between 64 and 84 degrees. The climate is hot”tropical, semi-humid. There are two seasons in northwest Madagascar. It is dry and cooler from May through October, wetter and hotter November through April. The Ploughshare tortoise is mostly inactive through the drier cooler months.
The habitat is fragmented and believed to cover an area of approximately twenty-five square miles. (Swingland, Ian R)The primary food sources for the Ploughshare tortoise are the grasses in open rocky areas of bamboo scrub. It will also browse on shrubs, forbs, herbs, and dried bamboo leaves. (Bove, Jennifer) The Ploughshare Tortoise forages for food during the morning and late afternoon. (Swingland, Ian R)The Ploughshare tortoise is an herbivore and does not prey on any other animals.
For a long time in its history on Madagascar, it had no natural predators. Once the bushpig arrived in Madagascar (it came to Madagascar from the mainland of Africa), it began to attack the Ploughshare Tortoise and its young, also eating their eggs in the nests. The Ploughshare has no practical defense to stop the bushpig which gets as large as 300lbs and stands as high as 31 inches at its shoulder. I could find no source that specifically stated when this occurred. The bushpig has become the only natural predator of the Ploughshare in Madagascar. (Huffman, Brent)The Ploughshare tortoise is very slow to reproduce which is contributing to its critically endangered status. The Ploughshare tortoise is estimated to reach sexual maturity around 15 years of age. The reproductive season occurs from approximately January 15 to May 30, with both mating and egg hatching beginning at the onset of the rainy season which begins in November.
A female tortoise can produce one to six eggs per clutch and up to four clutches every year. (Bove, Jennifer)The golden, helmet-shaped shell of the plowshare tortoise makes it one of nature’s most beautiful tortoises. But the Ploughshare tortoise’s shell is also one of the main reasons that the Ploughshare Tortoise has become one of the rarest tortoises on earth. People are willing to pay up to sixty thousand dollars for one of these rare adult tortoises. Some Asians believe that the Ploughshare tortoises, which can live for over 100 years, will bring long life to the owner. Asian people love gold, and the carapace is gold. So literally these tortoises are like finding gold bricks in the wild that one can pick up and sell. (Stahl, Lesley)The economy of the local population is impoverished. The people of Madagascar average income is $1600.00 per year. Because that is the average over 70.7% of the entire population lives in extreme poverty making as little as $535.00 per year. This extreme poverty grows worse as you get farther away from the capital.
The extreme poverty drives villagers living on the northwest coast to search for and find Ploughshare Tortoises to sell to poachers. Poachers are paying forty dollars per tortoise, or 13.375% of their annual income for each one. (Writer, Staff. The World Factbook: Madagascar. Central Intelligence Agency)Unfortunately, Madagascar is poorly placed to protect these species. Poaching levels continue to increase in Madagascar which is a result of political instability. Besides being a biodiversity hotspot, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a Human Development Index of just 0.520.63.
Following a government coup in 2009, Madagascar has been in a consistent state of civil unrest. The current political environment is volatile. Madagascar was due for elections in November 2018. As of January 2019, the elections held in November are contested, with no clear winner determined. The political situation has regressed to the 2009 fragile political environment or even worse. (Lekaba, Frank)The most valuable species on the illegal pet trade market is the Ploughshare tortoise. Madagascar with a contested regime lacking international recognition and an absence of law enforcement at national, regional and local levels leaves the poachers with little worry. Bilateral aid cuts from most governments including the United States and weak internal legitimacy have led to increased corruption levels and unemployment. Subsequently, wildlife crime, poaching, and smuggling have risen, all contributing to the declining wild population of the Ploughshare tortoise.