The illegal wildlife trade is driving declines in populations of a number of large, charismatic animal species but also many lesser known and restricted-range species, some of which are now facing extinction as a result. The ploughshare tortoise Astrochelys yniphora, endemic to the Baly Bay National Park of north-western Madagascar, is affected by poaching for the international illegal pet trade. To quantify this, we estimated population trends during 2006–2015, using distance sampling surveys along line transects, and recorded national and international confiscations of trafficked tortoises for 2002–2016. The results suggest the ploughshare tortoise population declined > 50% during this period, to c. 500 adults and subadults in 2014–2015. Prior to 2006 very few tortoises were seized either in Madagascar or internationally but confiscations increased sharply from 2010. Since 2015 poaching has intensified, with field reports suggesting that two of the four subpopulations are extinct, leaving an unknown but almost certainly perilously low number of adult tortoises in the wild. This study has produced the first reliable population estimate of the ploughshare tortoise and shows that the species has declined rapidly because of poaching for the international pet trade. There is an urgent need for increased action both in Madagascar and along international trade routes if the extinction of the ploughshare tortoise in the wild is to be prevented.