by Rick Hudson 

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TSA Madagascar continues to be called on to manage confiscations of tortoises, both at the international airport in Antananarivo and in the rural south. Program Director Herilala Randriamahazo reports that on 20 June, 453 baby Radiated Tortoises (Astrochelys radiata) were seized at the Ivato Airport, all packed in eight cloth bags, and crammed into a suitcase. An Egyptian woman was detained before boarding a Kenya Airlines flight.

Earlier in 2015 the TSA had been tasked with caring for three illegal shipments that included 268 juvenile Radiated and 96 adult Spider tortoises, bringing the total for the year to 817 tortoises. Then in early July, just on the heels of the airport seizure, 918 Radiated Tortoises were confiscated in Lavavolo in southwestern Madagascar, and are being cared for by the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership. Small tortoises continue to be poached in large numbers and smuggled out for illegal pet markets around the world.

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TSA – in partnership with Utah’s Hogle Zoo – has just completed construction on a fourth tortoise rescue center in the south, this one in Beloha, formerly a poaching hotspot. Ironically, 163 juvenile Radiated tortoises were just confiscated there today (July 14), only a month after this Center was completed, and join 58 adult tortoises already being cared for there, adding credence to our mantra “if you build it they will come.” This is a rather sad commentary on tortoise conservation in Madagascar, but the good news is that we are much better prepared to care for these refugees than we were two years ago.

Plans are also taking shape for an extensive Tortoise Conservation Center (TCC) that will be developed over the next five years. The TCC will greatly enhance TSA’s ability to rehabilitate and transition confiscated tortoises back into the wild, in areas with protective and supportive local communities. Research is currently underway to test various release strategies for Radiated Tortoises, the goal being to determine if penning prior to release will encourage site fidelity, or their tendency to remain in the general vicinity.

The survival of tortoises in Madagascar’s rural south will depend on a number of factors, primarily our ability to discourage poaching. But for now our vision is to develop a strong relationship with local communities, that still have robust tortoise populations and good habitat (often in sacred forests and ancestral burial grounds), and encourage them to uphold the centuries-old tradition of protecting tortoises. Indeed, the survival of many species of turtles and tortoises will increasingly depend our ability to incentivize indigenous people to become willing guardians of their natural resources.