Tortoises fall prey to hunters

QUITO (Reuter) - Rare giant tortoises on the largest of the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, which have narrowly escaped a huge fire, face a greater threat from hunters who have been killing them illegally, rescue workers say.

The workers fighting the month-old blaze on Isabela Island say they have discovered the remains of at least 42 giant tortoises killed by locals. The meat of the tortoises, particularly the females, is thought to have medicinal benefits. In some parts of Ecuador, the tortoises' blood is considered a cure for asthma and other illnesses.

'It turns out that man, not the fire, is the real enemy of these animals,' one rescue worker said. 'It is a real massacre.'

The tortoises, which are an internationally protected endangered species, have all been killed since the beginning of the year and dumped at two separate sites, officials said. The hunters are thought to come either from Isabela Island's 1,000-strong population or from other nearby islands.

A massive rescue effort was carried out recently to protect the island's estimated total 6,000 tortoises from a blaze that began in mid-April. The fire, which has still not been completely extinguished, destroyed 5,400 acres (2,200 hectares) of woodland.

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