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Rescued rare tortoises go on show for first time in Britain

London: Four rare tortoises rescued in Hong Kong from illegal smugglers went on show for the first time in their new home at Britain's Chester Zoo.

The ploughshare tortoises, regarded by conservationists as one of the world's most threatened species of tortoise that went on show on Saturday, were handed to the zoo in 2012 after being confiscated by customs officials in Hong Kong in 2009.

The quartet, part of a shipment of 13 being smuggled from Madagascar, formed part of a European Breeding Programme for the species, Xinhua news agency reported.

Experts from Chester said they want to help raise awareness of the plight of the species in the wild.

A spokesman at the zoo said: "Ploughshare tortoises are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) having been poached to the point of extinction."

"They are highly prized for their distinctive gold and black shells and fetch exceptionally high prices in the international black market."

"Efforts to steal the animals from Madagascar are so relentless that there may only be 500 left, making it one of the rarest animals in the world."

Gerardo Garcia, the zoo's curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates, said: "The ploughshare tortoise is iconic because of its beautiful shell but the species is under huge pressure for its survival."

"There's a very real possibility the species could be lost forever due to illegal trafficking for the exotic pet trade. Most of these illegally exported tortoises are sold in markets in Southeast Asia."

The zoo spokesman said the UN estimates the illegal trade is worth billions of US dollars each year and despite efforts to crack down on it, it continues to grow.

"These tortoises are seen as the jewel in the crown of the reptile world. It's very possible that, within the next two years, there will be none left in the wild because of this trade. Our long-term ambition is to maintain a safety net population at the zoo," said the spokesman.

Officials at Chester Zoo in northwest England said illegal wildlife trade is worth $19 billion every year and is the fourth biggest international crime after drugs, arms and human trafficking.

The only habitat where the ploughshare tortoises live in the wild, a remote stretch of sand, rock and bamboo in northwest Madagascar, has been turned into a national park to offer protection.

Chester Zoo is fronting a global campaign for fighting illegal animal trafficking.

The campaign includes a smartphone app that allows people to submit images and data of suspicious items on sale, possibly helping enforcement agencies.

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