Madagascar Revisited

by Rick Hudson 

DSC_5457_optFor the second time in 6 months, Rick Hudson (TSA) and Christina Castellano (The Orianne Society) teamed up to work in the south of Madagascar, continuing to look for solutions to the ongoing Radiated Tortoise crisis (see March 2011 trip report here). We came prepared this time with a highly capable field crew, the Mozambique-based Moz Images, consisting of cameraman Chris Scarffe and photo-journalist Aaron Gekoski.  Moz Images specializes in underwater photography but does land-based projects too, and they are highly adept at exposing various wildlife issues globally.  Their most recent project, Shiver, examines the shark-finning industry in Mozambique, click here to view a clip. The film that they were working on during this trip will be a short six-minute video, in three languages (French, English and Malagasy) that will be widely available for posting on various web and social media sites in order to expose the Radiated tortoise tragedy internationally. It will also be made available to TV stations in Madagascar and shown to many villages throughout southern Madagascar, particularly those impacted by, or participating in, tortoise poaching. 

We believe that the Radiated Tortoise is slipping away far too quietly (estimated 50% population decline in past 10 years) and that we must “increase the noise level” to build outrage internationally.  Locally, far too few people understand the impacts of eating tortoises.  And we must be clear on this:  eating tortoises in NOT practiced by those living in poverty with no choices.  It is consumed by those that can afford to eat in restaurants and prefer something “special” as an alternative to chicken or beef.  This film will also be part of a broader media campaign designed to “blanket the south” with messaging on tortoise poaching, their impending extinction, their uniqueness to the region, and attempt to reinvigorate the protective cultural traditions known as fady that have, for so long, been this species’ “saving grace.”   We firmly believe we are approaching a critical crossroads with this species, a tipping point so to speak, and that the actions we take and the decisions we make in the next five years could mean the difference between survival and extinction for the Radiated Tortoise in nature.  

In addition to capturing the tortoise crisis on film, we were also in Madagascar to release a group of 147 young Radiated Tortoises that were confiscated recently at the Ivato airport in Antananarivo, in route to Asia. The blog below documents our journey:


12 September:  Arrive in Antananarivo (“Tana”), Madagascar late at night after ~18 hours in the air

13 September:  Lunch with World Bank representatives to discuss new funding for Madagascar National Parks including Cap St. Marie, the single most important population of Radiated Tortoises in Madagascar; the film crew arrives at night.

14 September:  A full day of meetings and preparations for our flight to Ft Dauphin tomorrow.  We first visit the office of Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership (MBP) where the tortoises are being maintained, and begin filming. Many of the tortoises are light, and will require additional re-hydration before they can be released; fortunately they have good appetites and consume all of the greens we offer. Then to the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT) to speak with Richard Lewis and see the new Ploughshare tortoises from the same confiscation, and then wrapped things up with a meeting with WWF Madagascar to finalize the terms of the MOU (designed to better coordinate our collaborative partnership for Radiated Tortoises in the south). 

15 September:  Arrive at the airport early so that we can get the two boxes containing our tortoises to the air freight office for our flight to Ft. Dauphin.  The tortoises arrive in good condition, we meet our drivers, shop for groceries and head out for the Berenty Reserve, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Madagascar, known for their troops of habituated ring-tailed lemurs and Verreaux’s sifakas.  An after-dinner night walk produces a large handsome Dumeril’s boa on the trail.

16 September:  Film lemurs in the AM then head west, first stopping in Ambovombe to pick up Silvain Mahazotahy, our colleague who proved invaluable on the last trip due to his familiarity with the local dialects and customs of the South.  Our ultimate destination this day is Tsiombe, a well-known tortoise eating town where we are confident – based on the last trip – that we will easily uncover evidence of tortoise consumption.  We drove straight back to the same piles we photographed in March, and collected footage and interview. We purchase a bunch of plastic pans for soaking (to rehydrate) tortoises and then checked into a hotel – a walled compound for privacy –that allows us to unpack the tortoises for feeding and watering without a lot of curious onlookers.  One thing is certain in Madagascar:  when we pull into a town, we are sure to attract a crowd.  We learn later that night that the piles of tortoise shells that we filmed earlier had been burned by some of the locals in order to destroy the evidence.  It is obvious that those involved with poaching and selling tortoises and meat know that they are breaking the law.  But with  the judges and gendarmes (local police) turning a blind eye, there is generally little concern.  However our presence with cameras has heightened their concerns.

17 September:  We spend the morning in Tsiombe looking for additional evidence of tortoise consumption and conduct interviews with various people to better understand their perceptions of tortoises.  These include a family that keeps small tortoises as pets, the local Forestry Department warden and the head of the local gendarmes.  As usual there is always some vague reason why they can’t (= won’t) enforce tortoise protection laws, and tellingly there are remains of slaughtered tortoises just over the wall of the gendarme’s compound.  We drive on to Lavanono, about 45 minutes due west of the Cap St Marie Special Reserve, site of one of the most concentrated populations of tortoises in the world, and one that is essential to the long-term survival of the Radiated Tortoise.  We check in with our host, Monsieur GiGi, a Frenchman of renowned energy and will, and a true force of nature.

18 September:  We begin the task of processing 147 tortoises which means collecting data such as weights and measurements, shell notching for permanent ID and evaluating each animal for health status.  Each tortoise is ranked based on weight, body condition and alertness (are the eyes open, are they active) as to their suitability for release and given a visible paint mark.  All tortoises are soaked and fed again, and we finish all but 40 tortoises.  The process is slow due to filming and interviews. The rest will be done when we reach Ampotoka tomorrow, site of the release.

19 September:  We drive north to Ampotoka, site of the March 2011 tortoise release, where we find a village anxiously awaiting our arrival.  While we are processing the remaining tortoises, the village prepares for a celebratory dance ceremony.  This is a lively and raucous affair and spirits are high, and we sense a genuine enthusiasm for the restoration of tortoises to their sacred forest.  We took the first steps back in March when we released 14 that had been confiscated in Beloha, and the village is clearly supportive.  Most of their tortoises were poached out during the 1960s during construction of a pumping station, and again in the 1990s.  The villagers claim to have a more protective attitude now and want tortoises back in their sacred forest.  After the ceremony we pack up the tortoises and some of the young men help transport them to the forest.  We travel to a remote area, selecting release sites with good forage and grasses, and release them 20 at a time.  Remarkably, we watch as a number of the small tortoises begin grazing within a few minutes of being released:  truly a feel good moment!!  This area is sacred and protected because of the numerous burial tombs, all made from a distinctive red rock that we do not often see.  After a late lunch that the village chief’s wife prepares for us, we embark on a two hour drive to Ampanihy for the night.

20 September:  Up early to that we can film an interview with a local judge who is becoming well-known in the region for his enforcement of tortoise protection laws, and his willingness to confront tortoise poachers.  This is the same judge who confiscated the tortoises in Beloha last year that we released in Ampotoka.  We seek to understand why he embodies this attitude, and hope to promote him as a model for what other judges could and should be doing.   We then depart for a three hour drive to Fotadrevo, a town to the north with a notorious reputation for tortoise poaching and consumption.  From what we can ascertain through talking with locals, most of the bands of tortoise poachers that set up camps to collect and dry tortoise meat, hail from Fotadrevo.  We go there hoping to film the tortoise markets, but even after splitting up so it is just Malagasy people asking the questions (Herilala and Sylvain), we are unsuccessful in uncovering these markets.  The people in this town are very guarded and suspicious, and we leave empty handed, returning to Ampanihy for the night.

21 September:   We return to Ampotoka for a brief meeting with the village, then on to Beloha where we track down an old acquaintance from recent trips, a colorful individual that is extremely passionate about tortoises, who we affectionately call “the Rasta.”   The Rasta is a vocal opponent to the widespread practice of tortoise consumption that Beloha is becoming known for and he is anxious to help us.  We tell him what we need to film and he is gone.  While filming interview with the local chief of the gendarmes (who tells us he could apprehend poachers better if he had a motorcycle), the Rasta returns and says he has arranged for us to interview a tortoise poacher.

P1040090_optWe follow him down some back alleys and step into the back lot of a small business and dwelling, and find ourselves looking at a pig sty full of freshly killed Radiated Tortoise, at least 50 HUGE adults.  Seeing such carnage creates a visceral, nauseating response in those of us who love tortoises and that response is to be sick.  But after you manage to suppress that urge, you experience conflicting emotions as you realize that this is the type of image – powerful and graphic – that is needed to shock people’s senses and build outrage for this carnage.  Over the next two hours until the sun fades, we capture an extensive interview with the poacher, all translated into English, as to why he does this.  He admits that he knows that it is illegal but says the authorities are aware of what he is doing but ignore it.  We also interview his mother who cooks and serves the tortoise meat.  As far as covering this story goes, this has been a “pay dirt” day and provides the most detailed insight that we have had yet into this dirty business.  We pack up and head south at dusk for Lavanono and Monsieur GiGi’s hospitality.

22 September:  We head to Cap St Marie early for filming and the film crew is able to catch some of the dramatic landscape here while the morning light is still good.   Christina, Herilala,  and I spend rest of the day working with the Park’s Director – Hery – to develop a strategy to improve management of the Park, based on World Bank guidelines for new funding that is expected to be available soon.  The emphasis is on improved surveillance, involvement of local communities around the park, and creating a sustainable revenue stream based on increased tourism.

23 September:  We check out of the Chez GiGi and head to the village of Antsakoamasy, just to the east of Cap St Marie.  We reported previously on this village in 2010 and again earlier this year, as they support a robust population of tortoises, and do an admirable job of protecting them.  We say that the fady is strong here, and we believe that this village can become a model for others in the area, of how protecting tortoises can be beneficial for your community.  We agreed to build a school here as incentive for the job they are doing, and we are paying a visit to help move this process forward.   The village erupts in song and traditional dance shortly after our arrival, and tortoises are evident grazing in the surrounding fields.  We spend several hours finalizing design plans and discussing building materials.  We determine to use limestone, from a local quarry, and then set off to hire a man in an adjacent village known for his rock carving skills. We say our goodbyes at Cap St Marie and then head east for the two hour drive to Tsiombe.

24 September:  The last day in the field should have been uneventful and the plan was to get up and drive four hours to Ft Dauphin for our return flight to Tana that night.  But Sylvain makes some inquiries about the tortoise business, and the next thing we know he shows up with a basket full of 38 tortoises, ranging in size from hatchling to softball size, that he has acquired from a local seller.  The tortoises were likely being held until someone picked them up and returned them to Tana for a flight out, and on to Asian pet markets.  We get to work soaking and evaluating the group and have to come up with a plan quickly.  The tortoises will be returned to the headquarters at Cap St Marie and be held there until Herilala can return in October and select a release site.  We drive on to Ft Dauphin, return to Tana that night.

This trip, like the last one, has been another “eye opener”, but each visit helps expand our understanding of the threats facing Radiated Tortoises, and what is required to deal with those threats.  We make no claim to have all the answers but we do have some ideas as to what course we need to pursue.   There will be no one silver bullet solution to this crisis; a myriad of approaches and strategies will be needed.  The TSA and The Orianne Society and now partnered and engaged in an aggressive campaign to raise over 1 million dollars to effectively address this situation.  Saving this tortoise will not be cheap or easy, but saving it is what we are committed to doing, and it promises to be probably the greatest challenge that either myself or Chiristina have ever faced.  The film should be out end of Janauary 2012 that should prove to be an effective tool for both increasing global awareness and fund-raising.  We look forward to reporting positive results in the coming months.

This trip would not have been possible without major support from the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation and the AZA Radiated Tortoise SSP who made it possible to cover the film crew’s  expenses.  The TSA also wishes to thank Ross Popenoe and Tom Motlow for their generous contributions to this project.

Footnote to this trip report:  Two days after our departure, officials at Cap St Marie were alerted to a tortoise poaching camp 10 km outside Beloha where we had just filmed.  The poachers were gone but the charred shells and skeletons of some 700 tortoises remained, a grim testament of the scope and magnitude of the poaching. 

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