by Jordan Gray 

Itampolo Rock and Tortoise

A large juvenile Radiated Tortoise sits beside the commemorative stone placed at our Itampolo tortoise facility.

On a late June morning, 62 days after the nearly 10,000 Radiated Tortoises (Astrochelys radiata) were seized from wildlife traffickers in Toliara, Madagascar, a large green truck departed the SOPTOM-CRCC “Village des Tortues” in Ifaty. Contained within it, a precious and historically significant cargo: 1,724 small juvenile specimens of this critically endangered species. The shipment of this smallest size-class of tortoise would represent the final transfer of these beleaguered tortoises, generously held at the SOPTOM facility, to our TSA facility near Itampolo. It would also mark the end of our joint relief operation based in Ifaty and signify the transition of primary operations to Itampolo.

In the more than two months since Soary Randrianjafizanaka, Directeur Regional de l’Environment, de ‘Ecologie et des Forets (DREEF Atsimo-Andrefana) first placed the tortoises at the Village des Tortues following the seizure, thousands of tortoises have been transferred in staged intervals to our Itampolo facility. Transported in contingents of 1,000 – 2,000 tortoises based on size and weight class, and given health screenings prior to departure, the tortoises will receive long-term care in Itampolo. These transfers have been charitably sponsored by WWF Madagascar and Deutsche Geselschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH.

Tortoise Truck

The final shipment of tortoises and supplies was provided by Deutsche Geselschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH.

Tasked with the important assignment of transitioning the overall relief operation to Itampolo, including the continuation of medical treatments, animal care, and transportation health assessments, was the 5th wave of our joint relief effort. This contingent was composed of wildlife warriors representing the Shedd Aquarium, White Oak Conservation, University of Florida, University of Queensland, Turtle Survival Alliance, and private practice. The team packed and transported all of the remaining tortoises, medical and animal care supplies, and support equipment to our new facility in Itampolo.

Situated 137 km (85 mi) southeast of Ifaty, the Itampolo facility now houses over 8,900 of the original 10,196 tortoises discovered inside the single residential holding facility. Our new base of operations in the Mahafaly region, this facility recently underwent a major expansion (See the article in the next eNewsletter!) to improve operational capacity for this exceptional number of tortoises. This expansion includes sprawling forested enclosures built into native spiny-forest habitat, guard stations, medical clinic, food preparation area, and a water distribution system that is currently being installed with assistance from the seventh and final wave of volunteers. Here, the tortoises will get a second chance at a long life in Madagascar. They will be cared for by our Malagasy staff until they have passed a safe quarantine period and regained the fat reserves lost during their containment by the wildlife traffickers. It is our goal to reestablish this group of critically endangered tortoises to protected wild reserves through our comprehensive “Confiscation to Reintroduction Strategy.”

Sadly, of the original 10,196 animals discovered within the traffickers’ holding facility, 1,225 of these beautiful and iconic tortoises will never return to the wild—a tragedy guaranteed by their long and inhumane treatment by poachers. Within the residential holding facility, 308 animals were initially discovered dead by the DREEF, 721 perished during the critical first week post-seizure—despite the greatest attempts of the Malagasy contingent of veterinarians to save them, and 196 perished after the arrival of our joint response teams on April 22nd. Although the loss of 1,225 tortoises to the scourge of wildlife trafficking is significant, the more than 5,900 medical assessments and treatments performed by our veterinarians in Ifaty since April 11th provides evidence that thousands more would have died without intervention.

Continuing this unprecedented relief effort, “Team Radiata 6,” representing the El Paso Zoo, Oregon Zoo, and Zoo Atlanta, and “Team Radiata 7,” representing the Wildlife Conservation Society, North Carolina Zoo, and Great Plains Zoo, have been putting in long hours on the ground in Itampolo, both working on construction for the facility’s expansion and providing medical and husbandry care for the thousands of tortoises. These efforts will, without a doubt, provide a better future for the tortoises in Madagascar.

Team Radiata 6

Team Radiata 6: Jose Arnaud Miarison (TSA), Dr. Kate Leach (Zoo Atlanta), Dr. Mamy Andriamihajarivo (TSA), Kelli Harvison (Oregon Zoo), Luis Villanueva (El Paso Zoo)

Team Radiata 7

Team Radiata 7: Boris (TSA contractor), Kate Archibald (North Carolina Zoo), Janelle Brandt (Great Plains Zoo), Katherine Hagen (North Carolina Zoo), Melissa Ortiz (WCS), Brittany Murphy (WCS), Bruce Moffit (North Carolina Zoo), Terria Clay (WCS)

We owe a debt of gratitude to the DREEF Atsimo-Andrefana, SOPTOM-CRCC, Malagasy Government, the U.S. Embassy, and all the zoological institutions, charitable organizations, NGO’s, and private donors who have made the first chapter of this monumental relief effort possible. To continue supporting this historic relief effort and long-term care for the nearly 9,000 Radiated Tortoises now under our care in Itampolo, please consider DONATING TODAY.