Nearly half of the critically endangered tortoises seized from smugglers in Thailand last month have died since the rescue, and the fate of the remaining tortoises is in the air.

In March, Thai officials caught two smugglers with hundreds of endangered tortoises at the Suvarnabhumi International Airport. The haul included 54 critically endangered ploughshares from Madagascar, representing about 10 percent of the entire remaining species.

No one is really sure why the animals died after authorities rescued them from the poachers. Eric Goode, president of the Turtle Conservancy, a New York-based group that is working with the Thai wildlife rescue center that has the tortoises, says it is unlikely that they died from dehydration or starvation. He said that trauma during the journey could be a possible cause, but that it was unlikely to come from the smugglers' transport due to their financial incentive to keep the tortoises healthy.

Poachers usually collect the small ploughshare tortoises during Madagascar's wet season, then transport them through the city of Mahajana and islands in the Indian Ocean, before sending them through Kenya and on to Thailand. When rescued, tortoises can be sent through multiple Thai provinces before they reach a wildlife rescue center.

And authorities are divided on the question of what to do with the remaining living tortoises. Some believe the animals have to be held as evidence until the smugglers are tried. Turtle Conservancy scientists are fighting to use photographs of the tortoises instead. Madagascar has expressed interest in bringing the tortoises home, but political turmoil has taken precedence in the country. Even then, scientists are unsure if the tortoises can even be returned to the wild because it is still unclear whether they have been exposed to disease.

In the meantime, the Thai government the Turtle Conservancy is working to send veterinarians and conservation team members from Madagascar to keep the remaining tortoises alive until their fate is decided.

UPDATE: This post originally misidentified the Turtle Conservancy as a Thai group; it is a New York-based group. And the Conservancy, not the Thai government, is working on sending a team to keep the tortoises alive.

[via, photo via Getty]