The race to save the tortoise

Turtles and tortoises have been roaming the planet for 200 million years, but now many of them are endangered by poachers

The following is a script from "The Race to Save the Tortoise" which aired on Dec. 9, 2012. Lesley Stahl is the correspondent. Andrew Metz, producer.

Not since the dinosaurs disappeared, have animals been going extinct as fast as they are now. Entire species vanish every year.

And while our hearts are moved by the plight of the biggest, whales or elephants, the fiercest, tigers, even sharks and certainly the cutest, like pandas, what about the slowest?

For more information on the Turtle Conservancy, click here.

The turtle, and its land-loving cousin the tortoise, have been plodding along, slow and steady, for more than 200 million years. But their hard shells are little protection from human predators and a booming illegal animal trade.

It may be too late to save many of them, but they have found an unlikely protector in a man named Eric Goode.

Some of New York City's hottest hotels, restaurants and bars are owned by Eric Goode.

[Eric Goode: Hello, I need to say hello to people I haven't said hello to...Hi.]

That's made him rich and comfortable with the glitterati and fashionistas, but behind-the-scenes, he caters to a far less glamorous clientele, endangered turtles and tortoises.

Lesley Stahl: How did the whole interest, if not obsession, with turtles and tortoises begin?

Eric Goode: As a child at six.

Lesley Stahl: At six?

Eric Goode: I was given a small Hermann's tortoise. And that created a budding interest in the natural world and in reptiles, and snakes and lizards, and in my hard-shelled friends that I just fell in love with. And so it was a progression.

It's an obsession that takes him as far from the glitz of the New York scene as imaginable. He wades through swamps, turns over rocks, wrangles exotic snakes and other reptiles, as he searches for his first love.

[Eric Goode: What a beautiful tortoise. This is our first Psammobates tentorius trimeni.]

Turtles and tortoises trace back before the dinosaurs. But now today, about half of the over 300 species are headed toward extinction, largely because of habitat loss and an insatiable market for them -- particularly in Asia -- as food, medicine, rare collectors items and pets.

Lesley Stahl: How big a business is the turtle, tortoise trade?

Eric Goode: China alone is probably in the hundreds of millions of dollars. This trade flourishes because the payoff is huge and the chance of getting prosecuted and incarcerated are very low.

Lesley Stahl: If you're going to be in something illicit this is the safest or one of the safest.

Eric Goode: And that's a tragedy.

Eric Goode is spending a million dollars a year of his own money to fight the trade in places like Madagascar, an island off the coast of Africa, that's vastly undeveloped.