Seven Aldabra giant tortoises, which are a rare and vulnerable species found at a few UK wildlife parks as well as some private collections, have been found dead over the last couple of weeks in Ashclyst Forest to the northeast of Exeter.
Aldabra giant tortoises are endemic to Seychelles, northeast of Madagascar off the coast of East Africa. They are considered so vulnerable due to consistent human poaching. They can reach huge sizes of up to 550 pounds, living up to 150 years old, and often reach lengths of 3-4 feet. Their status of ‘vulnerable’ comes under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which comprises a spectrum from ‘least concern’, to ‘near threatened’, followed by ‘vulnerable’, ‘endangered’, ‘critically endangered’, ‘extinct in the wild’ and ‘extinct’. The predators of these animals typically include rats, cats and pigs who target eggs and new hatchlings.
Aldabra giant tortoises are endemic to the Seychelles, northeast of Madagascar off the coast of East Africa. They are considered so vulnerable due to consistent human poaching
The tortoises have been discovered and reported by a member of the public in land owned by the National Trust in Devon, at the Killerton site, which is just over 6 miles from Exeter. This area is a hugely popular location for dog walkers and people looking to escape to the countryside. The tortoises were situated at the entrance to the forest, which comprises 672 acres in total. The first two were found on the 8th January, and an additional five on the 12th.
Widespread horror has emerged from finding these animals, with staff at Killerton urging people to speak to police about anything they know. In an interview carried out by the New York Times, Dr Gibbs, an animal expert, believed they were around 10-20 years old, and hadn’t yet reached maturity, also commenting on the potentially deformed nature of their shells – which also suggests foul-play and potentially inappropriate conditions within captivity.
An expert interviewed by the Devon Live on the 18th January believes the animals have been “dumped by smugglers”, as strict rules around breeding mean that the tortoises could be worth up to £10,000 each. The expert also reported his dubiousness that they were dumped pets, because of their enormous value, and is “certain they were dead before they were left” due to cold temperatures, reportedly around 2 degrees in the week of their death, and difficulty moving them.
Police are currently investigating the situation, considering the cause of death, means of disposal, and original owners. Inspector Mark Arthurs requested information in an interview to the BBC about people who had owned a large number of the tortoises, but now found they had fewer, and also wanted to speak to anyone who had recently purchased a giant tortoise in the Devon area.
Surprisingly, this is not the first situation of its kind. In December 2021, Vale Vets appealed to the public for information after a giant tortoise was dumped in the very same woodland, only 7 miles away from the most recent findings. As of yet, it is unclear whether these instances are linked.
Reflecting on conservation challenges and successes makes the recent Exeter discoveries all the more tragic. Conservation efforts have recently increased the numbers of Aldabra Tortoises, one of the first ever animals subject to a captive breeding programme, which was developed partly under Charles Darwin in the 1800s. A breeding programme and permanent nature reserved established in 1981 on the Aldabra atoll, Republic of Seychelles, has achieved conservation excellence in supporting redevelopment of the species. There are a limited amount scattered across the UK, with the nearest being five that can be found at Paington Zoo.
Reflecting on conservation challenges and successes makes the recent Exeter discoveries all the more tragic
In the UK, it is an offence to buy or sell these tortoises without a certification, and it is incredibly hard, and expensive, to replicate appropriate living conditions at home for them to live comfortably. The RSPCA therefore discourages people from choosing them as pets, due to the possibility of animal welfare issues.
The RSPCA appeals line is one of the many requesting information, and can be found at: 0800 555 111.