1,000 Radiated Tortoises Return to the Wild

For Immediate Release

A Thousand Radiated Tortoises Return to the Wild in Madagascar

August 9, 2021

CONTACT:     

Amy Carter, Turtle Survival Alliance, (843) 608-9369, acarter@turtlesurvival.org

• 1,000 Radiated Tortoises seized from illegal trafficking returned to the wild in Madagascar.
• Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and Madagascar’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development initiate ‘Confiscation to Reintroduction Strategy.’
• Pilot release will serve as blueprint for rewilding more than 26,000 confiscated tortoises under TSA’s care through community partnerships.
• Tortoises will be monitored post-release to record movements, quantify survival, and qualify release efficacy.

ANTANANARIVO, MADAGASCAR—Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) today announced the release of 1,000 Radiated Tortoises (Astrochelys radiata) into their native forest habitat in southern Madagascar. The release is part of a pilot project that is expected to inform a strategy for the eventual release of more than 26,000 confiscated tortoises. This release represents a return to the wild for tortoises seized from illegal traffickers, years of strategic planning, and embodies the rewilding of an iconic and endangered species through community engagement and partnership.

“This historic reintroduction represents a critical juncture for the TSA-Madagascar program and our country’s iconic Radiated Tortoise. If we can establish a reliable and effective method to return confiscated tortoises to their native landscape in protective communities, then we can begin to draw down the massive numbers we are supporting in captivity. Through the implementation of a successful working model to follow, we will have made a giant step towards initiating our Confiscation to Reintroduction strategy. The persistence of our treasured Radiated Tortoise in nature depends on it,” said TSA-Madagascar Director Herilala Randriamahazo.

TSA-Madagascar staff transfer Radiated Tortoises into their transport enclosures at the TSA’s Tortoise Conservation Centre where they have been cared for for several years following their seizure from wildlife traffickers. Photo: Rajo Adolphe Landry Andrianiaina

“As turtle populations plummet globally, illegal collection is the front-and-center issue facing species in decline. For those working to combat illegal wildlife trade, confiscations of popular and high-value species continue to mount. These confiscations not only place a burden on those caring for them, but signify the loss of turtles from their wild populations. The release of these first 1,000 tortoises epitomizes TSA’s long-term commitment to responsibly returning animals to their rightful place in the wild,” said Rick Hudson, President of Turtle Survival Alliance.

In preparation for returning the tortoises to the wild, a veterinary team from Saint Louis Zoo and Wildlife Conservation Society, working with TSA staff and students from the veterinary school of the University of Antananarivo, performed health evaluations for tortoises large enough to be considered for release. The 1,000 cleared for release were placed in an isolation enclosure for one year prior to their transfer to the reintroduction site. Concurrently, TSA staff, in close collaboration with Madagascar’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development (MEED) and other government institutions and the local community, invested considerable effort to prepare the site for tortoise release. They declared the site a community-managed area, conducted surveys to establish boundaries, constructed expansive pre-release enclosures, and built capacity among community members to manage the site for tortoise and as a community forest.

Large juvenile Radiated Tortoises feed on leafy greens in their pre-release enclosure at the community-managed forest release site. Photo: Rajo Adolphe Landry Andrianiaina

TSA will liberate 500 tortoises from their pre-release enclosures into the community-managed forest at the end of six months and the remaining 500 after a year. A subset of the tortoises will be equipped with radio-transmitters and GPS trackers to monitor their movements, habitat use, and survival. This information, combined with community’s ability to protect and manage the tortoises and their habitat, will help guide future releases.

The Radiated Tortoise was once considered the most abundant tortoise in the world, with an estimated 12 million tortoises formerly inhabiting the coastal spiny forests and scrublands of southern Madagascar. For centuries, the tortoise was protected throughout much of its range by a religious taboo of the Mahafaly and Antandroy peoples known as “fady.” This fady prevents the harming of tortoises.

The community who will manage the release site forest celebrates the return of their sacred Radiated Tortoises. Photo: Rajo Adolphe Landry Andrianiaina

In recent decades however, an influx of outsiders to the region, socioeconomic pressures attributed to the rapid growth of Madagascar’s population, and drought and famine, have resulted in the erosion of some societal norms and unique customs, and put a greater stress on the sourcing of income and sustenance. International and domestic pressures now lead to the collection of tens of thousands of tortoises annually to satisfy demand for pet and food trades, and for use as bushmeat by illicit timber harvesting camps. Consequently, thousands are seized by law enforcement and placed under TSA’s care. In 2018 alone, TSA provided rapid response for more than 18,000 tortoises. At their rate of decline, the Radiated Tortoise is considered Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). At present, more than 50% of the world’s 359 species of turtle and tortoise are threatened with extinction. For many, continuing illegal trade is the central factor in their decline.

TSA owes a special debt of gratitude to United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for their generous support of our captive tortoise centers, the Association of Zoos & Aquariums SAFE program and the Disney Conservation Fund for grants to support this reintroduction, and to all the donors and partners who have and continue to provide assistance to the TSA-Madagascar program.

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About Turtle Survival Alliance

With a vision of zero turtle extinctions in the 21st century and a mission to transform passion for turtles into effective conservation action, the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) was formed in 2001 in response to rampant and unsustainable collection of Asian turtles supplying Chinese markets. Since its inception the TSA, a with 501(c)(3) nonprofit, has become recognized as a global force for turtle conservation, capable of taking swift and decisive action on behalf of critically endangered turtles and tortoises. TSA employs a three-pronged approach to turtle conservation: 1) restoring populations in the wild where possible; 2) securing species in captivity through assurance colonies; and 3) building capacity to restore, secure and conserve species within their range countries. In addition to the Turtle Survival Center in South Carolina, TSA manages collaborative turtle conservation programs in 15 diversity hotspots around the world. For more information, visit: www.turtlesurvival.org; http://www.facebook.com/turtlesurvival; www.instagram.com/turtlesurvival; @turtlesurvival on Twitter.

4 Comments

  1. Linn Lagerström, Parken Zoo Eskilstuna, Sweden on August 13, 2021 at 2:31 am

    Great to hear that you have been able to continue with this work despite the situation that have emerged during 2020/2021.
    Keeping my fingers crossed that this pilot release will work out as planned.
    Keep up the good work!

  2. Richard Crowley on August 19, 2021 at 3:19 pm

    This is an incredible announcement and we wish the best of luck on the pilot program.

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