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Thousands of radiated tortoises seized from traffickers in Madagascar

  • More than 7,000 critically endangered radiated tortoises were confiscated by authorities from suspected wildlife traffickers in Madagascar on Oct. 24.
  • The seizure happened in the same area where a similar bust, involving nearly 10,000 tortoises of the same species, took place in April.
  • The NGO Turtle Survival Alliance is working with the Madagascar environment ministry to care for the surviving tortoises.

Authorities in Madagascar confiscated 7,347 radiated tortoises (Astrochelys radiata) from wildlife traffickers on Oct. 24, just months after a similar bust led to the seizure of nearly 10,000 tortoises of the same species in a nearby town.

“There’s this buzz in our ears of this vacuuming sound coming from the country” as tortoises are removed from the wild to satisfy domestic and international demand for meat and the pet trade, said Jordan Gray, communications and outreach coordinator for the South Carolina-based Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), in an interview with Mongabay.

A keeper inspects one of the confiscated tortoises. Image courtesy of Turtle Survival Alliance.

TSA’s lead veterinarian, Ny Aina Tiana Rakotoarisoa, and three of the organization’s keepers have been working to care for the latest batch of tortoises near the town of Betioky in southwestern Madagascar.

The tortoises from the April bust had been confined to an abandoned house without food or water and “living in their own filth” before they were rescued, Gray said. These animals are a bit healthier, he added, relaying information from Rakotoarisoa. The traffickers had been keeping the animals outside where they had access to shade and some food.

Still, as of Oct. 31, more than 200 of the tortoises had died, and some of the survivors were dehydrated and underweight.

“We are still in the critical phase of this relief effort,” Gray said.

TSA veterinarian Ny Aina Tiana Rakotoarisoa examines a tortoise near Betioky. Image courtesy of Turtle Survival Alliance.

Trade in radiated tortoises is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. But surging demand for the meat and pet trades, primarily from Asia, appears to be driving poaching of the critically endangered species from the dry shrubland of its native Madagascar. That has increased the pressure on a tortoise that has also lost parts of its habitat to farming and ranching in recent decades.

A 2018 investigation by the NGO TRAFFIC revealed a spike in the number of radiated tortoises, along with other species, being sold in markets in Indonesia, where they can fetch more than $7,300 apiece.

Officials in Madagascar have had success tracking down poachers at home. The Ministry of the Environment, Ecology and Forests arrested three suspected traffickers in this latest case. And three others were tried, convicted and sentenced to jail for their involvement in the April seizure, though the accused do have a short window to appeal, Gray said.

Keepers have created temporary habitats for the tortoises at the facility near Betioky. Image courtesy of Turtle Survival Alliance.

TSA’s immediate concern is how to manage the care of this new group of tortoises on top of the more than 18,000 tortoises already at its facilities. The plan is to move the surviving tortoises to TSA’s Lavavolo Tortoise Center near the town of Itampolo beginning Oct. 31, where 8,600 tortoises from the April bust currently reside, and to Village des Tortues, run by TSA’s partner organization, SOPTOM. Gray said the organization’s greatest need is funding for the transport and for food and their care once the tortoises arrive. TSA will likely hire four new keepers to care for the new arrivals, so the organization’s monthly expenses could rise by $1,000, Gray said.

Village des Tortues was the site of the previous rescue effort. For several months after the bust, seven waves of veterinarians and caretaking staff traveled from around the globe to the center to help save as many animals as possible.

This time around, TSA plans to take a step back, letting vets like Rakotoarisoa take the lead.

“We really want to empower the Malagasy,” Gray said, “so our primary focus this time is on logistical and financial support so that the people of Madagascar can better protect their wildlife.”

Over the longer term, Gray said, addressing this issue will require international collaboration to increase penalties for poaching and trafficking both in Madagascar and abroad.

TSA plans to begin moving the tortoises to rescue centers from Oct. 31. Image courtesy of Turtle Survival Alliance.

Indonesian courts recently convicted two wildlife traffickers who were caught with radiated tortoises, according to TRAFFIC.

“These cases mark a new beginning for Indonesia in its fight against wildlife crime, and we commend Indonesian authorities for taking this on,” Kanitha Krishnasamy, TRAFFIC’s director for Southeast Asia, said in a statement. “We look forward to more cases being investigated and acted upon.”

However, Indonesian law doesn’t outlaw the possession of species that aren’t native to the country, so the men were charged only with violating quarantine laws. The courts handed them suspended sentences and ordered them to pay fines that topped out at just over $300.

“The sentences are very disappointing,” Krishnasamy said. “They will not serve as a deterrent for those well entrenched in the illegal and lucrative trade of this highly threatened species.”

Gray sees that effect rippling all the way back to Madagascar. Until there’s “a safer environment for the tortoises to go back into,” he said, it doesn’t make sense to return them to the wild.

Jordan Gray of TSA said the addition of the recently seized tortoises could require four additional keepers to handle the thousands of tortoises the organization now has under its care. Image courtesy of Turtle Survival Alliance.

“The poaching is so rampant,” he added.

Part of the issue is the widespread poverty in a country like Madagascar, where 86 percent of the population gets by on less than $3.10 a day, according to the United Nations Development Programme. Collecting tortoises from the wild represents a way to make quick money. Addressing that issue involves helping people find alternative sources of income and changing attitudes toward poaching.

Gray also said TSA planned to redouble its efforts to pressure governments where the illegal wildlife trade is a problem.

“It really needs to happen at much higher levels to get to the root of the problem,” he said.

Banner image of radiated tortoises confiscated on Oct. 24 courtesy of the Turtle Survival Alliance. 

John Cannon is a Mongabay staff writer based in the Middle East. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

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