Why Disfiguring Tortoises Is an Act of Kindness

Carving into a ploughshare tortoise’s shell may look like an act of vandalism and animal cruelty, but for some conservationists, it’s one of the best actions they know to protect the highly endangered species, reports NPR.

With only a few hundred left alive, ploughshare tortoises are on the brink of extinction. Rather than getting a reprieve from poachers, however, their rarity makes them a prime target. Some private collectors capture them alive for the thrill and status of owning a unique pet. Others kill them for their stunning golden shells. Either way, these tortoises go for tens of thousands of dollars on the black market.

In order to make ploughshares less attractive to poachers, animal conservationists have begun carving a series of letters and numbers into the tortoise shells. While the engravings do not appear to hurt the tortoises, even if it did, the conservationists believe that some minimal harm is worth protecting their lives.

The theory is that affluent individuals will have no interest in decorating with shells that have been covered in graffiti. Additionally, would-be pet owners will hopefully consider a defaced tortoise less special and leave it alone.

Engraving isn’t the only action conservationists are taking, though. They’re also establishing sanctuaries in the hope of successfully breeding the ploughshares and increasing their population.

In addition to carving captive tortoises, activists have increased their efforts to chisel on ploughshares in the wild since that is where they are most vulnerable. While a tortoise’s shell can help protect it from some predators, it is far too slow to evade human capture.

“On one hand, tortoises have lived for over 250 million years. They’ve outlived the dinosaurs and they precede the dinosaurs,” Eric Goode, the founder of the Turtle Conservancy, told NPR. “On the other hand, man is able to exterminate them very, very quickly.”

Although making endangered animals less beautiful is certainly unconventional, it’s not entirely unheard of either. Conservationists in Africa have resorted to dehorning rhinoceroses in the wild for similar reasons. Since rhinos are hunted specifically for their valuable horns, the idea is that poachers will no longer have a reason to kill them.

It’s a pity that conservationists have been put in a difficult situation of having to damage endangered animals’ bodies in an effort to save them. Hopefully we can one day ensure the ploughshares safety without having to carve on them. Until poaching is eradicated, however, it might regrettably be the best course of action.

Though contending with poachers is no easy task, you can do your small part by calling on governments to step up their efforts to stop tortoise smuggling. This petition demands that politicians in Madagascar where many of the ploughshare tortoises reside take more responsibility for protecting the endangered creatures.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 months ago

thanks for the article.

AniMae Chi
AniMae C.9 months ago


Carrie-Anne Brown
Carrie-Anne Brown9 months ago

thanks for sharing :)

Leanne B.
Leanne B.1 years ago

Saw this on a Tv show. As long as it works I'm for it. Petition signed.

Carolanne Powell
Carolanne Powell1 years ago

I always believed that tortoises were banned for sale in the UK, however, a friend recently informed me that there are young tortoises for sale £300 at our local garden centre!

Mandy H.
Mandy H.1 years ago

There's nothing to suggest that just because turtles can feel people touching their shells that TORTOISES can as well. Tortoises are different animals with different biology and it's possible that their shells are harder then that of a turtle. That said it's hard for me to know where to stand on this issue, I believe strongly in saving endangered species but I'm also against hurting animals.

Anne K.
Anne K.1 years ago


Thomas Myers
Thomas Myers1 years ago

Well, at least now, I understand why. I have a sulcata. She was rescued after being dumped in New York where she couldn't possibly survive the winter. She's with me, in Florida. She had bad pyramiding, but over the years, it has reduced slightly. People, these shells are not their homes: it's their skeleton. Specifically, it's their spine. They feel every stroke, every strike, and especially every breach. Nevertheless, carvings and breaches may scar, and upset, but they will heal and the pain will go away. I personally have no fear of dying but if I were to be given the choice of either experiencing some temporary pain, or dying, I would chose the pain. Then again, the choice between temporary pain and death is the choice we make every day by not ending it, as pain is a never ceasing thing.

I love animals. I have a special love for tortoises. Some may notice that I rarely spend my points. That is because I choose to use my butterfly points on the tortoise rescue options this site offers (I save up to 8 or 10000 so that I can click the tortoise rescue option four or five times). That's just me, of course. As to how far we are willing to go to save these harmless and inoffensive creatures, your mileage may vary.

Jamie B.
Jamie B.1 years ago

Defacing a turtle shell is a small price to pay for the protection of a species. As with most turtles, this species included, it is not painful, nor does it effect their "Hotness factor" as a potential mate. What is tragic, is that people are so stupid not to realize that poaching does have a distinct consequence and that is extinction. Extinction is forever.

Elisabeth JImmink

I signed the petition.