4 Rare Tortoises Known as the 'Jewel of the Reptile World' Make Public Debut at Zoo

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It’s been a long journey for these rare tortoises, from the clutches of ruthless smugglers to a long-awaited debut in the U.K.

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The four ploughshare tortoises, with shells so precious the species has been poached to existence, were rescued by the Chester Zoo from the hands of smugglers in 2009.

At the time, they were part of a group of 13 tortoises confiscated by Hong Kong customs officials after they were illegally plucked from their native Madagascar.

In 2012, the four were turned over to the Chester Zoo.

"There’s a very real possibility the species could be lost forever due to illegal trafficking for the exotic pet trade," Dr. Gerardo Garcia of the Chester Zoo, said in a press release. "These tortoises are seen as the jewel in the crown of the reptile world."

The ploughshare tortoises are recognized for their distinctive gold and black shells, and are highly coveted in the international black market.

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According to the press release, officials estimate there may only be about 500 of the species left in the wild, making it one of the rarest animals on earth.

The zoo now hopes the four ploughshare tortoises on display will help raise awareness for conservation efforts.

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