by Jordan Gray
Two weeks ago, as Turtle Survival Alliance was preparing for a new year of turtle conservation, we were quickly reminded that 2021 was not over yet. At 8:00 PM local time on December 30th, TSA-Madagascar headquarters received word from our staff that a large number of tortoises were being smuggled out of Soamanitra.
Soamanitra is a small village in the Androy Region of southernmost Madagascar—and, one that’s well-known as a hub of tortoise trade in the region. Beyond the village center lies a latticework of dry livestock pastureland and fragmented spiny forest. This area was once all spiny forest and coastal scrub, the habitat of the Radiated Tortoise (Astrochelys radiata). The region’s name itself, Androy, means “spiny land.” What little is left of the native “spiny land” is found in fragmented patches, as are the tortoises. Unfortunately, poaching is systematically removing what is left of a once-dense tortoise population.
Immediately upon receiving intelligence that poaching was in progress, TSA-Madagascar contacted the commandant of Androy’s Gendarmerie (Malagasy police) in Ambovombe, the region’s largest city and administrative capital. Local gendarmes were dispatched to Soamanitra to intercept the consignment of tortoises and apprehend the smugglers. In what has become an all-too-familiar scene, what resulted that night was the seizure of a truckload of tortoises.
Filling the bed of a small pickup truck were a dozen polypropylene bags full of tortoises—868 of them to be exact. All of the tortoises were juveniles, favored by poachers for the international (and illegal) pet trade due to their small size which makes them easier to move in large numbers. Often the tortoises are held for weeks to months at a staging point (such as Soamanitra) before they are smuggled to their next destination. Once out of the country, the tortoises may have several transfer points before arriving at their final destination—pet markets of China, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, or elsewhere.
For more than 30 years these types of smuggling events have become commonplace in the Androy Region, but they weren’t always so. For centuries the Tandroy and Mahafaly ethnic groups which dominate southern Madagascar shared a cultural taboo (called fady) that protected the tortoises from harm. In recent decades, however, influx of outsiders, climate-change induced drought and famine, extreme poverty, and rapid population growth have resulted in the erosion of some societal norms and unique customs, including fady.
The gendarmes immediately freed the young tortoises from the sacks for counting and documentation. In the meantime, staff from our Tortoise Conservation Center (TCC), roughly 40 km (25 mi) away, mobilized. Upon arrival our staff carefully reloaded the confiscated tortoises into a TSA truck for transport to the TCC following the administrative transport permit received from the Regional Director of Environment and Sustainable Development (DREDD Androy). Through the night and into the next day, TSA Madagascar staff evaluated, documented, and triaged the tortoises, ensuring that each one would receive necessary care based on its condition. In cases like these, hydration usually is the single most important action to putting the animals on the road to recovery. When stockpiled for transport, tortoises often have no access to food or water for extended periods of time. However, when quickly provided hydration along with other therapeutics after they are rescued, confiscated tortoises in capable hands have a greater than 90% survival rate.
Following evaluations and triage, TSA Madagascar staff placed all 868 tortoises in quarantine enclosures. The rescued tortoises are given a variety of nutritious foods, constant access to fresh water, and a regime of medical treatment. Following quarantine, they will be integrated into the greater “refugee population” of Radiated Tortoises at the TCC, now numbering more than 9,000.
While the TSA Madagascar team closed out 2021 fully engaged with ensuring the survival of another 868 of their country’s iconic Radiated Tortoise, the coming weeks would prove 2022 to begin just as the previous year ended.
On Monday, January 10th, in the Atsimo-Andrefana Region, TSA staff rescued another 37 juvenile Radiated Tortoises from smugglers in Beahitse. The tortoises were seized—some bound together by rope looped through holes drilled in their shells, others with their feet restrained with sticks. This type of restraint is not an uncommon practice for poachers who are collecting tortoises to be sold as food. The tethers make it easier for tortoises to be carried through the forest or immobilized while poachers make camp. Unlike those who smuggle tortoises for the international pet trade, these poachers are not concerned with damage to the tortoise’s iconic shells.
Beahitse, like Soamanitra, is a small village of no more than 250 dwellings with a population living in poverty. It, too, is located far from any major city or population center. And, like Soamanitra, is surrounded by a vast expanse of arid livestock pastureland and fragmented spiny forest. Of note, Beahitse is situated in relative proximity to Toliara, the city near which TSA mobilized global response teams to provide 12-weeks of critical care to more than 10,000 Radiated Tortoises seized in April 2018. Like Soamanitra, Toliara is a well-known hub of tortoise trade.
Following the interception of the poachers, the tortoises were transported to TSA’s Lavavolo Tortoise Center along Atsimo-Andrefana’s extreme southwest coast. There TSA staff documented each tortoise and conducted rapid evaluations and life-saving hydration. And, like at our Tortoise Conservation Center to the East, they were assigned to quarantine habitats, joining the thousands of other Radiated Tortoises rescued from black-market trade that are being cared for daily at the Lavavolo Tortoise Center (LTC). The majority of the tortoises in our care at the LTC originate from 2018’s major confiscations of April and October, respectively. The LTC underwent significant restoration and expansion in response to these seizures, ensuring that the greater than 15,000 “refugees” from that year could thrive under our care[JG2] .
It’s TSA’s goal to one day return most of these tortoises to their rightful place in the wild. Last July, TSA with the administrative collaboration of DREDD Androy, began a pilot project to implement the reintroduction phase of our Confiscation to Reintroduction Strategy, releasing 1,000 tortoises to a community-managed forest in the Androy region. To date the tortoises are thriving in their new home. If this model works, the 905 Radiated Tortoises newly rescued by TSA and our partners at Gendarmerie Nationale also will return to the wild, resuming their place as icons of the spiny forests of southern Madagascar.
The TSA would like to extend great thanks to our partners at the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development (MEED), the Director of Environment and Sustainable Development (DREDD) Androy, the Director of Environment and Sustainable Development (DREDD) Atsimo-Andrefana, Gendarmerie Nationale, and regional gendarmes, for which our work would not be possible without.