Some of the rarest, and most critically endangered, animals on the planet were found inside a box and bags about to be smuggled out of Madagascar, the wildlife monitoring agency TRAFFIC International reported Wednesday.
The 26 ploughshare tortoises were found before they could be shipped out to Jakarta, Indonesia, on Monday via Madagascar's airport. Two men were arrested.
"In terms of conservation impact, this is a big one — 26 ploughshares out of a world estimate for the species of 440-770 wild individuals, and many people consider that number optimistic," TRAFFIC spokesman Richard Thomas told msnbc.com.
Authorities also confiscated 169 radiated tortoises and one spider tortoise, two species also listed as critically endangered but whose numbers are significantly higher. The three species are native only to Madagascar and are sold abroad as pets.
International trade in the tortoises, and all endangered wildlife, is banned by an international treaty, but smuggling is rampant.
Political instability in Madagascar is partly responsible for a large increase in smuggling activities, the World Wildlife Fund recently reported. Its survey estimated that each week some 1,000 tortoises are taken from their habitat on the Mahafaly Plateau.
Local officials said the main destination of wildlife smuggled out of Madagascar is to Indonesia and other countries in Southeast Asia.
TRAFFIC last month reported that in Thailand alone it found more than 100 radiated tortoises, dozens of spider tortoises, and three ploughshares for sale in markets and online.
Several large-scale seizures of these tortoises were also made in Malaysia and Thailand in 2010, TRAFFIC said. Most were found stuffed and hidden in luggage smuggled through airports.