Police have questioned a man about the deaths of seven valuable giant tortoises found in a forest last month – as they revealed two more bodies have been discovered.
The first two Aldabra giant tortoise bodies were found in Ashclyst Forest, Devon on January 8 and a further five were recovered nearby on January 12.
Now, police say two more bodies were located in the same area as part of their ongoing investigation.
A man in his 50s from the Exeter area attended a voluntary attendance police interview in relation to suspected offences under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
Inspector Mark Arthurs said: ‘We are grateful for the public support in response to our appeal and have been working through the information we have received.
One of the latest tortoise bodies found in Ashclyst Forest in Devon. Police are quizzing a man in his 50s after a total of nine toirtoise bodies were recovered from the area
Three of the dead tortoises. No explanation was given for the animal’s demise. The new mystery began on January 8 this year, when the first two ‘victims’ were discovered alongside one of the forest’s bridleways by a walker braving the New Year chill
This picture from 2021 shows another Aldabra giant tortoise found dead in the same forest
‘We have been working closely with specialists, including the RSPCA and our colleagues from the National Wildlife Crime Unit.
‘Our enquiries are ongoing.’
Devon and Cornwall Police has been working with the National Wildlife Crime Unit and the RSPCA to progress this investigation.
Post-mortems are still to be carried out to establish the cause of death of the tortoises as the investigation continues.
If you have any information that could help with enquiries, please contact police via our website here or by calling 101 quoting 50240006127.
Alternatively, independent charity Crimestoppers can be contacted anonymously online at Crimestoppers-uk.org or by calling freephone 0800 555111.
Although there are an estimated 400,000 pet tortoises of all species in the UK, the Aldabra is rare, with only some 400 thought to live in Europe.
Along with the more famous Galapagos, it is one of just two giant tortoise species left in the world. Male Aldabras grow up to 1.2m in length, weigh a quarter of a ton and can live to the age of 200.
Unesco estimates that about 150,000 Aldabras still roam wild in their natural habitat — the Aldabra atoll, part of the Seychelles, north of Madagascar. But due to their tiny geographical range and the difficulty breeding them (never achieved in Europe), the Aldabra is classified as ‘vulnerable’.
It is the exotic nature of these majestic creatures that has captured the imagination of the local community.
Hayley Belworthy owns an equestrian centre at Newhall Farm, bordering the forest to the west. She first heard about the gruesome discovery on a community Facebook group.
‘People are shocked and devastated,’ she says. ‘We’re a close-knit community so when something like this happens, it’s just horrific.’
Were the Ashclyst Seven simply too expensive to be kept alive — and abandoned to the January cold?
Anya Honey, a professional dog-walker who frequently takes her canine charges to the forest, described the discovery as ‘deeply disturbing and upsetting’. Pictured: Ashclyst Forest
The National Trust, which owns the Killerton Estate that encompasses Ashclyst Forest, confirmed that its officers had been called to the scene where the tortoises had been found. The Trust said its team were ‘horrified’ by the discovery
One of Ms Belworthy’s grooms, Tess, who keeps two horses at the centre and commutes the short drive from Exeter, is equally affected.
‘I’ve had horses here for the past 20 years. Everyone is friendly and happy. Everybody helps each other out. It’s like a village here, so we’re all upset.
‘And because we don’t know what’s happened, it makes it worse. I think it will make people wary to go into the woods.
‘But we’ll carry on: we don’t have a choice. We’ll all be keeping an eye open, though.’
Anya Honey, a professional dog-walker who frequently takes her canine charges to the forest, described the discovery as ‘deeply disturbing and upsetting’.
She added: ‘I only wish I had been here at the time: perhaps I could have saved these beautiful creatures.’
Many in this community — which stretches from Cullompton to the north down to Exeter in the south — echo a strong sense that things like this simply don’t happen here.
Henry Massey, chairman of Broadclyst Parish Council, told the Mail: ‘This is an area of very little crime. The worst we usually get is dogs off leads attacking sheep. It’s clearly upsetting that this happened in what is otherwise a happy, quiet parish. But that might be exactly why it was used.’
In a statement earlier this week, Devon & Cornwall Police said: ‘Enquiries are under way to identify the owners and establish the circumstances that led to the animals being disposed of.’
Inspector Mark Arthurs added: ‘We are appealing to members of the public for information to try to . . . identify those responsible.
‘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.’
The National Trust, which owns the Killerton Estate that encompasses Ashclyst Forest, confirmed that its officers had been called to the scene where the tortoises had been found.
The Trust said its team were ‘horrified’ by the discovery.
The RSPCA released stomach-churning images to the Press: the tortoises’ legs spread back against their shells and their heads outstretched and limp.
One of the victims. There are several theories to explain how the tortoises came to their unfortunate end. Were they victims of illegal wildlife-smuggling? Did their owner fail to look after them properly, and then in a panic dump their corpses?
Two of the victims. ‘People are shocked and devastated,’ Hayley Belworthy says. ‘We’re a close-knit community so when something like this happens, it’s just horrific’
Henry Massey, chairman of Broadclyst Parish Council, told the Mail: ‘This is an area of very little crime. The worst we usually get is dogs off leads attacking sheep. It’s clearly upsetting that this happened in what is otherwise a happy, quiet parish. But that might be exactly why it was used.’ Pictured: Ashclyst Forest
Considering the unique nature of the Aldabra tortoise, it is no surprise that local police have asked for help from leading tortoise expert Adrian Graham, 52, from Lincolnshire.
He told the Mail that one of the difficulties surrounding the case was the anonymity of many Aldabra owners who are reluctant to publicise the existence and whereabouts of their animals.
Mr Graham — who owns 27 Aldabras along with a host of other species — received his first tortoise when he was just five years old. Being allergic to cats and dogs but an animal-lover, he settled on tortoises, which have become his life’s passion.
After analysing the shells of the dumped tortoises — roughly 80cm in length — Mr Graham revealed that they appeared to be teenagers or young adults.
‘When you look at their shell-shape, muscle tone and state of the flesh, they look like they’ve been cared for. It doesn’t look like they’ve been neglected,’ he said.
But for Mr Graham, this only muddies the waters.
‘Why would someone spend thousands of pounds purchasing and looking after these animals, only to abandon them?’
And that is no exaggeration. A healthy young Aldabra specimen can fetch up to £10,000.
Such a price tag is necessary, according to Mr Graham, to ensure potential owners have sufficiently deep pockets to care for their animals: ‘If you can’t afford to buy one, then you can’t afford to keep one.’
These beasts are ‘not a light-hearted commitment,’ he added. ‘They’re a life-changer, demanding dedication and space.’
Keepers should typically have an inside pen kept at a constant 32c, complete with UV lighting — both mercury lamps and UVB fluorescent tubes — which provide Vitamin D, as well as a ‘fogging system’ to keep humidity at roughly 60 per cent.
But Aldabras also need plenty of outdoor space, ideally with a pool of water — they are excellent swimmers and can hold their breath for up to half an hour.
According to the RSPCA, 90 per cent of illegally imported tortoises die within four years.
‘If someone was keeping them as pets and was struggling financially, if they’d put up their hand and asked for help, we could have stopped this whole thing,’ said Mr Graham.