The golden, helmet-shaped shell of the plowshare tortoise makes it one of nature's most beautiful animals. But that shell is also one of the main reasons the reptile has become one of nature's most endangered species: people are willing to pay up to $60,000 or more for one of the rare animals. Lesley Stahl travels to Madagascar to report on efforts to save these ancient reptiles by any means necessary, including defacing its stunning shell. Her report will be broadcast on 60 Minutes, Sunday, Dec. 9 at 7:00 p.m. ET/PT.
Eric Goode spends about $1 million a year to save tortoises and turtles in places like Madagascar, where he says numbers of plowshare tortoises in the wild may be down to just 300. Some Asians believe the creatures, which can live well over 100 years, bring long life to their owner. The coloring of the shell is also coveted. "Asian countries love gold and this is a gold tortoise. And so, literally, these are like gold bricks that one can pick up and sell."
Goode, a well-known New Yorker who owns bars, restaurants and hotels there, and the British conservation groupThe Durrell Wildlife Trust, have hired locals in Madagascar to find plowshares before poachers can get to them. Once they are found, Goode and his colleagues are taking the unusual step of defacing the shells.
"It's painful to watch," says Stahl to Goode, as a worker drills lines on the shell that do not harm the tortoise but could make it worthless to a poacher. "It's too soon to know if [defacing] is working," says Goode. "It breaks your heart to have to do that to this beautiful, beautiful shell...You can compare it maybe to chain sawing off a rhinoceros' horn to save a rhino," he tells Stahl.
Around the world, entire species of animals go extinct each year, and much of Madagascar's unique wildlife is at risk because of the illegal animal trade and logging and agriculture that have wiped out as much as 90 percent of the island's native forests. Still, 60 Minutes cameras captured a wide variety of exotic animals in Madagascar, known for its one-of-a-kind flora and fauna.
For now, the tortoises and turtles have Goode to watch over them and help to keep their species, 200 million years old, alive for the ages. In Madagascar, he and his partners at the Durrell conservation group are protecting and breeding plowshares at a heavily guarded sanctuary. And from the looks of it, there will almost definitely be more plowshare tortoises around the sanctuary soon: Stahl and her camera crew were lucky enough to see a young-to-middle-aged plowshare (in the neighborhood of 100 years old) laying eggs. "This is what you work for and even more so when the little tortoise, when the hatchling comes out...you feel like you've broken a secret code," Goode tells Stahl.