Unless major conservation measure are enacted, Madagascar’s turtles and tortoises will continue to crawl steadily toward extinction, according to a recent assessment by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and other groups. With their habitat shrinking and illegal hunting worsening, these reptiles now rank among the most endangered on Earth.

The groups, which met for four days in Madagascar’s capital city Antananarivo, said there is still hope to save these ancient animals, but time is running out. Five of the nine assessed species have been downgraded to critically endangered, with one—the ploughshare tortoise—numbering only a few hundred individuals. The other critically endangered species include the radiated tortoise, flat-tailed tortoise, spider tortoise, and Madagascar big-headed turtle, all of which are found only on this African island nation.

“Madagascar’s ancient tortoises and turtles are marching toward extinction unless an all-out effort is made to protect these living national treasures,” said Dr. James Deutsch, director of WCS-Africa. “The good news is that there’s still time to save them, and we know how to tackle the issues.”

The workshop participants concluded that illegal trade continues to be the largest single threat for several critically endangered species. Ploughshare, spider, and flat-tailed tortoises, along with juvenile radiated tortoises, are particularly coveted by collectors and traded as pets on the international black market. Meanwhile, adult radiated tortoises are sold for food in regional markets in Tuléar and Fort-Dauphin.

In order to combat this threat, the workshop participants recommended the creation of a “tortoise brigade” to monitor and control illegal trade. Confiscated tortoises could be reintroduced to areas where populations have been decimated. With subsequent enforcement, opportunities for eco-tourism could follow.

The groups went on to say that more survey work is needed to identify unprotected tortoise populations and increase captive breeding and reintroduction efforts. Involving local people will be an essential component of any future conservation effort, helping to revitalize Madagascar’s traditions that once protected tortoises.

The Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates field projects throughout the island nation, will open Madagascar! on June 19 at its Bronx Zoo headquarters. The exciting new exhibit will showcase radiated and spider tortoises, among other rare Madagascan wildlife species found nowhere else. The exhibit will be a state-of-the-art green building, and the first landmark building in New York to receive a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design gold certification.

Co-sponsored by WCS, the workshop was convened by the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group and Madagascar’s Ministère de l’Environnement, des Eaux et Forêts et du Tourisme. Conservation International and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust were also co-sponsors. Other participating organizations included ANGAP (Parcs Nationaux Madagascar), WWF, Turtle Conservation Fund, Shellshock Campaign, Chelonian Research Foundation, IUCN Turtle Survival Alliance, Behler Chelonian Center, Frankel Family Foundation, Moore Family Foundation, and George Meyer and Maria Semple.