Is the Tide Turning for Madagascar’s Tortoises?

by Heather Lowe 

After nearly 30 hours in transit on three flights, and bone tired, I returned from Madagascar just in time for Thanksgiving. But with a few days to put things into perspective, I was ready to share my impressions about TSA’s work to reduce tortoise poaching: in brief, I believe the tide is beginning to turn!

I was there with our TSA Madagascar team, led by Herilala Randriamahazo and Sylvain Mahazotahy, and accompanied by a group from our partner, Utah’s Hogle Zoo, led by Christina Castellano. This was a busy trip with multiple agendas but I had three primary goals: 1) evaluate the impacts of our campaign to arrest large-scale tortoise poaching, 2) evaluate the site for our planned Tortoise Conservation Center (TCC), and 3) work with Herilala to write the grant proposal that will hopefully fund the TCC. As usual, we began our trip by flying to Ft. Dauphin and then driving west toward the core of the Radiated Tortoise’s range. TSA’s main activities are in the Tandroy region, and our first stop was their regional capital, Ambovombe. Here we inspected the first of three TSA tortoise rescue centers built in 2014, which is already nearing capacity with nearly 300 tortoises confiscated from the wildlife trade. Our first task was to hire a facility manager and get them trained in the short time I had available in the south. On the advice of Ms. Tojo Ratefason, new Regional Director of the Forestry Department, we hired Gerard Ialy. The next day we trained him on proper feeding techniques and a host of other husbandry details. From there we drove to Tsihombe where Herilala and Sylvain were completing their first Dina application workshop since the bylaw was adopted by the Tandroy region in 2012. This Dina – known locally as Lilintane I Androy – is a “bottom up” community-based law that is enforced by the people, and reinforces the cultural tradition for protecting tortoises that has existed in this region for centuries. It has the potential to be a “game changer” for reducing tortoise poaching, but its application must be spread widely throughout the region for this to happen. The workshop – aimed at community leaders and those with enforcement ability – was a major success in instilling local resolve to not “turn a blind eye to poachers” and since then, there have been three applications of this Dina, with poachers arrested and jailed in Ambovombe. These join 42 other poachers that were arrested back in August following the largest mass slaughter of tortoises on record – 5,000 near Tranavaho. These are historic events, in that poachers were previously rarely arrested for killing tortoises, and are a strong indication that the “tide is turning.” This is reflected in Herilala’s message to me recently: Five people were jailed on Monday 8 November 2014 in Ambovombe as a result of the community leader training on enforcement in Tsihombe. Even the families of the people caught killing tortoises have encouraged the police who made the arrest to bring their relatives into court. There is a big shift in compliance to the Lilintane I Androy. People started to share what they know in public and help to stop the tortoise killing.

Wherever we traveled in the south, we encountered a heightened sense of awareness for the tortoise poaching crisis, and a strengthening of people’s resolve to tackle the issue (I say this with cautious optimism). We can track this progress back to the media campaign that we launched in 2012 that brought this issue to the forefront, both locally and internationally, and put pressure on enforcement staff to take action. We anticipated that once they did we would have our hands full with confiscated tortoises, and our predictions were accurate. In preparation, we conducted two tortoise husbandry workshops in the south, directed at frontline responders who were most likely to handle tortoise seizures. In the first six month of 2014 alone, TSA Madagascar has been asked to handle 1,667 confiscated tortoises, which nearly equals the total volume of tortoises handled over the previous three years. Such numbers overwhelm our resources and place a strain on staff and facilities. Our other two rescue facilities in the south – at Ampanihy and Betioky – are approaching capacity as well and we have plans for two more Centers, which will be funded by Utah’s Hogle Zoo. Just this past week, Herilala was asked to accept another suitcase full of tortoises, including 89 Radiated and one Ploughshare, being smuggled at the Ivato airport.

As the various pieces of TSA’s Confiscation to Reintroduction strategy fall into place, there is one important component that is missing. The TSA needs a centralized base of operations in the south, where we can bring the growing number of confiscated tortoises for long-term holding and proper health evaluation prior to release. We need a counterpart facility to the Village des Tortues center at Ifaty on the west coast, where most of the confiscated tortoises now end up. This Center is currently holding many, many tortoises and to avoid the risk of catastrophic loss and having all out “eggs in one basket” we must build a second facility. The concept for the Tortoise Confiscation Center (TCC) is currently being developed, with partners and supporters being lined up to launch this initiative in 2015. We envision a Center located in the core of the species range, closer to TSA activities, that includes space for workshops and presentations, a bunkhouse and cooking facilities for visiting scientists, a tortoise clinic and a wide range of tortoise habitats for multiple size classes. We also plan to establish an assurance colony for the Southern Spider Tortoise, Pyxis a. oblonga, the most highly threatened of southern Madagagascar’s endemic tortoises. The first year will be spent in planning and design, with construction kicking off in 2016. We have been offered a 40 hectare (98 acres) plot of land by three communities in the Maravato Commune where we enjoy the enthusiastic support of the mayor. We walked this property recently and it is set in good dry forest habitat that still supports tortoises. In short, the TCC represents the missing piece and lynchpin in TSA’s strategy to halt the rapid decline of Radiated Tortoises, and to restore depleted populations through reintroductions.

When we started this program our ultimate goal was to enforce a protective barrier against poaching around the Special Reserve of Cap St Marie (CSM), a protected area that supports Madagascar’s most important population of Radiated Tortoises and Southern Spider Tortoises. We have built strong relations with the communities at Antsakoamasy, where TSA built a new primary school; and Lavanono, where Hogle Zoo recently brought the transformative power of soccer and effectively linked it to environmental awareness and tortoise protection. By rewarding these communities for their already-strong tortoise protective customs, we help “shore up” both the eastern and western flanks of CSM. Our goal now must be to continue to strengthen enforcement capacity in Beloha, the important northern gateway to CSM and the robust tortoise populations surrounding it.

Below are some observations that provide further evidence of the change in culture that is beginning to happen. One thing is clear: the battle to confront poaching will be won at the community level, one village at a time. But we must also build a willingness at the enforcement level – Forestry Department and local Gendarmes (police) – to respond once poaching is reported. We closed a major loophole during my trip when the Gendarmes in Beloha, a long-time hotspot for tortoise poaching, were presented with a new motorbike and repaired vehicle – complementary of Christina and the Hogle Zoo – so they are able to respond quickly once violations are phoned in. We also dropped off cell phones with our partner community, Antsakoamasy, to provide them with better communication resources.

• We saw increased presence of Gandarmes on the main road through the south, stopping vehicles and looking for tortoises. In fact, one of our drivers was detained until he could prove that he was not carrying tortoises. Recently, a group of government officials had tortoises confiscated from them during a routine stop.

• Participants in the Dina workshop in Tsiohmbe asked for a Contact Station on their main road to enable them to better monitor vehicles for tortoises.

• TSA’s man in the south, Sylvain Mahazotahy, is working now primarily as an enforcement training specialist, helping local authorities apply the Dina, and reporting and responding to poaching violations. It was Sylvain that led the team that apprehended the 42 poachers that now are in jail awaiting trial.

• Sylvain was accompanied on this mission by an enthusiastic volunteer group from Beloha – known as the tortoise patrol – that helped round up these poachers. Their leader is working in an official capacity through the Lilintane I Androy (Dina) and TSA will be outfitting them soon with new shirts and hats.

• The TSA name is becoming well known in the south, and to date we have been approached by 42 communities with requests for assistance with tortoise conservation and applying the Dina.

These developments represent a major shift in culture and attitudes in the Tandroy region toward tortoise poaching, and are what we hope will be the beginning of a long road back to recovery for the beleaguered Radiated Tortoise. There is always good news and bad news in these situations, but for the first time I came home feeling that there was more good than bad.