This Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2008 file photo shows an endangered desert tortoise in the eastern Mojave Desert several miles from an old mining and railroad townsite called Ivanpah, Calif.
Southern California conservationists say they've been forced to take extreme measures to protect rare tortoises from poachers. At a turtle sanctuary in Ventura County, they are branding each of the 360 ploughshare tortoises in captivity and 300 in the wild.
Decades of intense collecting, hunting and habitat destruction have brought the species to the brink of extinction.
Paul Gibbons, managing director of the nonprofit Behler Chelonian Center, tells the Los Angeles Times that while it's heartbreaking to mark the golden shells, it's necessary to help curb the trade in rare species.
He says carving two-inch identification codes on the shells will reduce the tortoises' black market value by making it easier for authorities to trace them if stolen.
The engravings brand the tortoises for life, roughly 160 years.