An English mystery: What killed 7 giant tortoises found in the forest?

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An English mystery: What killed 7 giant tortoises found in the forest?
In an undated photo from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, two of the seven dead giant tortoises in England. Several giant tortoises were found dead in Ashclyst Forest in Southwest England. What happened is anyone’s guess. (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals via The New York Times)

by Claire Moses

LONDON.- It wasn’t your usual crime scene. And they weren’t your usual victims. But it was a tragedy nonetheless, one that has grabbed the authorities’ attention in a sleepy corner of England.

The police in Devon and Cornwall are investigating how seven giant tortoises ended up dead this month in Ashclyst Forest, northeast of Exeter, England.

Two tortoises were found Jan. 8, and five more Jan. 12, police said. Authorities have asked members of the public to come forward with information if they have it. It’s unclear who found the tortoises, but police said “a member of the public” reported the dead animals.

For now there are only more questions — How did these animals die? Where did they come from? Who are their owners? — and almost no answers.

“We would also like to hear from anyone who has recently purchased a giant tortoise in the area or knows of anyone who normally has a large number of tortoises but has fewer now,” Mark Arthurs, a police inspector, said in a statement.

The police said the animals appeared to be Aldabra giant tortoises, which are native to Aldabra Island, part of the Seychelles archipelago in the Indian Ocean.

Aldabra tortoises need to live in very warm conditions, preferably temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius, or 86 degrees Fahrenheit, said Dr. James Gibbs, an expert in conservation biology and the president of the nonprofit Galápagos Conservancy — very different from the near-frozen English forest where the dead tortoises were found.

“These are so-called coldblooded animals, but they rely on very warm conditions to be functional,” Gibbs said. In cold temperatures, he added, “they could survive maybe an hour or two before they become so lethargic that they can’t move.”

Temperatures in England during the week the tortoises were found hovered around 2 degrees Celsius, or 35 degrees Fahrenheit. “To see them frozen in an English woodland is a jarring observation,” Gibbs said.

“It’s just a very bizarre situation,” he added. “Animals of this size and this value, just dumped unceremoniously.”

Based on the pictures he had seen, Gibbs said that the tortoises seemed to be 10 to 20 years old, not yet adults. Giant tortoises can live to be 150, even 200 in rare cases.

The tortoises also appeared to have suffered from malnutrition, he said, because their shells appeared deformed, and they looked like they had spent their lives in captivity. He added that they were “young tortoises that had a long life ahead of them.”

Tortoise smuggling isn’t uncommon, and giant tortoises can bring in a lot of money. The website Tortoise Town, based in New Jersey, sells young Aldabra tortoises that have been bred in captivity for prices between $2,799 and $7,495.

Ashclyst Forest is a natural woodland pasture of almost 300 hectares (almost 700 acres), according to a local tourism website. The forest has multiple walking trails and is home to butterflies, bluebells, birds and more wildlife, according to the National Trust, the governing body of protected sites in England.

It’s also extremely quiet most of the time.

“You could offload your dead animals there if you so wished,” said Henry Massey, a local councilor who lives in the nearby village of Broadclyst. “If you go in the middle of night, the chance of being disturbed is really small.”

While people sometimes illegally dump waste in the forest, Massey said, these reptiles were an unusual sight. But a similar incident happened in December 2021, when police said they received a report of one dead giant tortoise in the same area. But that case had been closed and was not considered a police matter at the time. Now, the police are trying to find out if the two incidents are related, they said.

Crime is extremely low in the area — “This is rural Devon,” Massey said — and the sudden appearance of seven giant tortoise carcasses had people talking for a while. But in the weeks since the discoveries, chatter in the village pub has largely returned to other matters while police search for new information.

“There’s nothing in the rumor mill,” Massey said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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