by Andrea Currylow

Since 2011, the TSA has been working with the southern Madagascar community of Ampotoka to create a safe reserve for the Radiated Tortoise. Ampotoka’s forests include some relatively untouched forested habitat that the community considers ancestral sacred ground. It is in those forests where the Radiated Tortoises were recently very numerous due to the protections provided by the sanctity of their habitat and the local fady (taboo) against touching tortoises. However, over the past decade, outsiders who don’t observe the fady have reduced the numbers of tortoises in the area dramatically, mostly for their meat.

The Turtle Survival Alliance has established community goodwill toward tortoise and forest conservation while revisiting the site over the past several years. We developed a reintroduction strategy couched in a scientifically-designed study. With three experimental groups, the study will allow us to determine the best approach for reintroductions in the future. Those groups include: two “soft-release” strategies where animals are held for either six or 12 months in enclosures within their new habitat prior to their release, allowing them to acclimatize to the area and curb wandering behavior away from the site; and one “hard-release” where the animals will be brought to the site and immediately released into the habitat. In addition, a portion of the remaining resident animals would be monitored prior to, and after the release of the repatriated tortoises.

In 2012, the TSA began supporting a Malagasy student (Soary Randrianjafizanaka) to conduct surveys at the site to determine the density of the remaining Radiated Tortoise population. Soary would also act as a community liaison, communicating project goals and conservation education. In 2013, Soary and the TSA support team acquired the official permissions from local and region governments authorizing the repatriation study. The TSA research team oversaw the construction of temporary enclosures meant to house the tortoises prior to their release, and a traditional ceremony of project acceptance was held by the community. In January of 2014 the first group of 45 soft-release tortoises (ones that had been rescued from poaching attempts) was transferred to the site from a holding facility. The second group of 45 soft-release tortoises was transferred to the site in July of that year, completing the transfer of the 12-month and 6-month groups. During this time, resident Radiated Tortoises were surveyed for and twelve were selected for radiotelemetry monitoring by local village assistants. Monitoring of all the animals was conducted by community members and overseen by Soary and TSA.

In January 2015, we brought the final group of repatriated tortoises to the site (the 39 hard-release group). These animals were being housed in the newly constructed Turtle Survival Alliance Rescue Centers in the villages of Ampanihy and Betioky. The Ampotoka community welcomed our arrival and in preparation for the release, held a formal meeting to brief locals from this and the surrounding communities. Despite the fady within the communities against disturbing the tortoises, many people are interested in why international organizations are investing in their communities, and want to learn more and participate. During this trip, two more local volunteers were selected to be part of the tracking team, allowing us to monitor the tortoises more frequently and more closely.

After examining each tortoise from all groups, the TSA research team selected 108 of them to be monitored using radiotelemetry. These tortoises will be tracked and their movements and habitat use will be monitored for at least two years. We then removed the enclosure fences and allowed all the animals to freely wander the forests. Several community members came out to the release site to aide in the fence removal as well as to just check out what was going on. It was an amazing experience to see tortoises that had gone through so much; once destined for the pot, rescued, held in captivity for months or years away from their dense forest habitat, and being biologically defunct, to be repatriated to their dense forest home, exploring it for the first time, and knowing that they represent hope for the future of the species.