The radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) inhabits the dry spiny forests of southern and southwestern Madagascar.  Regarded as a flagship species of the region, the existence of A. radiata is threatened by habitat destruction, illicit collection for local consumption and illegal trade in international markets.  Poaching of the tortoises is continuous year-round but predominantly occurs in March.  Annually, confiscations of hundreds of individuals are reported in both Madagascar and Asia.  These threats have led to its current status as critically endangered according to IUCN Red List criteria and listing in Appendix I of CITES.

During the 2007 Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) meeting, Sébastien Rioux Paquette, François-Joseph Lapointe and Edward Louis brought attention to the alarming decline of the radiated tortoise populations over the past decade.  In response to this devastating decline, a grant was awarded from Radiated Tortoise Species Survival Plan (SSP), and the Radiated Tortoise Project (RTP) was initiated by the Henry Doorly Zoo’s Madagascar Biodiversity and Biogeography Project (HDZ-MBP).  The RTP is a multi-faceted program including research, education, and community involvement that aims to improve the status of A. radiata in southern Madagascar, where the species remains largely unprotected.  The Lavavolo area was selected as the initial site for long-term conservation since the people of Lavavolo still maintain the local “fady” (taboo) against eating or harming the tortoises.

An important part of the conservation management plan for endangered species is research.  A total of 194 tortoises have been monitored from 2007 to present.  For long-term identification purposes, each individual is assigned an ID number, photographed (dorsal and ventral views), micro-chipped (left rear leg) and measured using standard morphometric parameters.  Preliminary results have shown that Lavavolo’s radiated tortoise population is composed predominantly of adults (82.9%) with a mean weight and straight carapace length of 5.98±1.69kg and 31.14±3.64cm, respectively.  Additionally, baseline genetic parameters are being analyzed in Omaha at the HDZ laboratory to investigate population structure and existence of multiple sire paternity.

In March 2008, the RTP began monitoring nest site parameters for six nests.  Each nest site was located by following gravid females until egg deposition upon which HOBO devices were installed to record ambient and nest temperatures, rain fall, soil moisture and air humidity.  These preliminary data will increase the understanding of the natural history of this species in the wild and provide valuable information applicable for any in situ and ex situ breeding program.  Since temperature is one of the major parameters affecting the biology of many tortoise and turtle species, these data will also provide an indication of the effect of temperature upon sex determination.  Therefore, a 2010 objective is to correlate results from the HOBO devices with endoscopic data from newly hatched individuals from multiple monitored nests.  Community involvement is essential in developing conservation framework; therefore, two local guides from Lavavolo village were trained to monitor the populations and nests while regularly collecting data from the HOBO devices.  These guides’ salaries were funded through a seed grant awarded by Turtle Survival Alliance in 2008.

In April 2009, as part of the education component of the community based program, coloring and activity books illustrating the biodiversity of Madagascar, including the Malagasy tortoises, were distributed to 210 pupils at Lavavolo primary schools.  During the presentation of these educational materials, the MBP education coordinator outlined the purposes of the project and the utilization of the coloring books to explain the richness of the region’s fauna and flora and why it is worthwhile to preserve.  A follow-up evaluation of the coloring books will be conducted at the end of this year to improve future conservation education materials.

Furthermore, the MBP education coordinator conducted an initial evaluation to determine the needs of the Lavavolo community through survey questionnaires distributed to the local teachers, citizens and authorities.  Two main deficiencies were continually voiced, electricity and water.  Since the region is well known for its solar and wind energy potential, the project aims to generate support for the installation of solar and wind powered equipment for priority buildings such as the schools, medical and public facilities.  By providing green alternatives such as solar powered lighting for school classrooms (promoting a better learning environment) or wind powered water desalination and filtration (providing potable water) a positive message or link between a conservation program and its surrounding community can be developed.

The primary cause of habitat loss for southern Madagascar is charcoal harvested from the remaining spiny forest.  Even though this forest type, unique to this region, produces an extremely poor quality fuel wood, it continues to be sacrificed for the production of charcoal.  Therefore, to provide an alternative to charcoal, the MBP plans to conduct on site workshops to demonstrate how to make fuel briquettes from biofuel materials (grass, rice husks, paper, or leaves) and fuel efficient rocket stoves to reduce overall charcoal consumption.  In conclusion, through the combination of local education and monitoring programs managed by the people of Lavavolo, the community will become beneficiaries as a direct result of conservation, and thus contribute to the survival of the critically endangered radiated tortoise.

– Tsilavo Hasina Rafeliarisoa
Doctoral candidate
University of Antananarivo, Faculty of Sciences
Animal Biology Department
Field Supervisor of Radiated Tortoise Project: Madagascar Biodiversity and Biogeography Project 
Henry Doorly Zoo, Grewcock’s Center for Conservation and Research

Support for this project was provided by the TSA Seed Grant Program