Radio-tracking Radiated Tortoises – Travel Blog Vol. 1

9 March 2022

by Brett Bartek

Antanananrivo, Madagascar—On Saturday March 6th, Lance Paden and I started the 37-hour journey to the island country of Madagascar. Here we are going to assist with the repatriation of 1,000 Radiated Tortoises (Astrochelys radiata) that were once confiscated from poachers. Eight months ago these tortoises were chosen, based on size and health, out of 26,000 tortoises the TSA currently cares for and moved to a 6-hectare (15 acre) pen within the natural home range of the species in the spiny forest of southern Madagascar.

Brett Bartek displays a large juvenile Radiated Tortoise outfitted with a radio telemetry unit.

You see, this species of tortoise is illegally collected out of the wild for two reasons; the pet trade, and the bushmeat food trade. The larger tortoises are collected as luxury cuisine for the wealthy in the capital city of Antananarivo and other cities in the country, while the smaller tortoises are collected for the pet trade in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Why the smallest you might ask? The answer is quite simple: you can fit more in a suitcase! Anyway, the tortoises that were selected for this first release are considered subadults and are in the 20 cm range.   

After arriving at our hotel at 3 AM—hungry, smelly, and exhausted—we soaked in the sounds of frog calls chorusing from the nearby rice paddy and reflected on the highs and lows of the seemingly endless flights and time in airports it required to get where we were. Over the next two days we spent our quarantine period watching the coming and goings from the rice paddy, photographing Madagascar Fodies (bright red and brown songbirds) from our balcony, and chasing Carpet Chameleons (Furcifer lateralis) in the hotel garden.

Juvenile Radiated Tortoises seized from wildlife traffickers soak up the morning sun on the grounds of TSA-Madagascar’s headquarters.

When we were informed of our negative Covid tests, we began the coordination process with the TSA-Madagascar staff here in the capital city. Herilala, Hanta, Johan, Christian, and many others showed us immense hospitality as they toured us around the program’s headquarters and introduced us to the tortoises that lived on the grounds there. It was an incredibly surreal experience being surrounded by some of the most endangered species on the planet, and the people who are their stewards. We discussed what the coming days would bring and what needed to be done to ensure this release would be successful.

Tomorrow we start our trip toward the spiny forests of southern Madagascar but, for now, I will finish my Three Horses Beer and ponder just how spiny the forest will be…

14 March 2022

by Lance Paden

Tsihombe, Madagascar—On March 10th, we boarded our domestic flight out of Antananarivo at 5:30 AM to fly to Fort Dauphin in southeast Madagascar. We landed at a vibrant little airport where our team (now consisting of Brett, myself, Herilala, and Tantily, a University grad student) met up with our driver and loaded the back of the truck with all our gear for the next leg of our journey to TSA’s Tortoise Conservation Center (TCC). The drive consisted of 8+ hours of countless road hazards in the form of “potholes” that you drive completely down into and then out of again while dodging a seemingly never-ending amount of motorbikes, trucks, bicyclists, pedestrians, zebu (Malagasy cattle), dogs, pigs, chickens, etc.

Lance Paden displays a subadult Radiated Tortoises outfitted with a radio telemetry unit.

Finally, after an eventful road trip, we arrived safely at the TCC and were greeted by its amazing and very friendly TSA staff. This facility manages the health and security of an incredible ~11,000 confiscated Radiated Tortoises! The number of tortoises kept here is difficult to comprehend without seeing what all is involved in caring for that many tortoises firsthand. After dropping our bags off in the room they had prepared for us, Brett and I meandered the grounds checking out all the local fauna that we could find before crashing for the evening.

The next morning, Brett got the drone out that he had brought along and conducted a couple short test flights over the TCC to demonstrate to the staff what he was hoping to do to map out the TCC grounds with high-resolution imagery. We also had a meeting that afternoon where we planned out the next several days’ worth of activities there, as well as our travel plans to the extremely remote recipient site (where the tortoises were soft-released in July 2021) that will be our home over the next few weeks.

A two-year-old Radiated Tortoises was one of the many wild Radiated Tortoises discovered while walking the perimeter of the TCC.

Brett and I spent much of our first full day at the TCC wondering where in the world we were at and what we possibly could have done to deserve to be at such a wonderful place!? We encountered numerous wild Radiated Tortoises ranging from hatchlings to adults just wandering the grounds as we did typical things like walk to the bathhouse and enjoying lunch beneath a gazebo. Our evening was filled with a night hike where we encountered a couple small lemur species moving about the trees and an array of truly wild-looking insects, including enormous Madagascan hissing roaches which have always fascinated me.

Brett Bartek leads a radio-telemetry workshop for TSA staff of the Tortoise Conservation Center.

Our second full day at the TCC was a particularly memorable one where we met up with veterinarian and lead keeper Dr. Tiana to conduct a radio-telemetry workshop. We used this time to demonstrate how to use the new handheld GPS units, telemetry equipment, and weather meters we brought along for the study of what will be the largest reintroduction of confiscated Radiated Tortoises in Madagascar’s history to date. Brett and I spent much of the remainder of the day leading small groups of keepers out to radio-track some transmitters that we had taped to several flip-flops and hidden around the TCC grounds. We did this so that the keepers who will be tracking the tortoises at the reintroduction site could get some practice honing their radio-telemetry skills. The keepers all picked up the tracking techniques very quickly and it seems that they are very motivated to see this monitoring project be a success.

TCC Keeper Avimasy (far left) leads other TCC staff around the property as they work on telemetry skills.

Following a full day of tracking, the full community of TSA support staff who work at the TCC came together and sacrificed a goat for good luck on our journey ahead the following week. We spent the evening socializing over Three Horses Beer and were eventually coaxed into joining the community in several ceremonial team-building dances. It was a full on Tandroy cultural experience to say the least, and not one that either of us will soon forget!

18 March 2022

by Brett Bartek

Undisclosed location, southern Madagascar—Don’t bring an air mattress to a place called “the spiny forest.” I can now tell you from experience that it won’t end well. The forests of southern Madagascar are a harsh environment. Not only is it extremely hot with very little annual rainfall, like many arid environments around the world the plants that live here have evolved a variety of defenses to ward off would-be grazers (or naive biologists). Most of the plants here are full of sharp spines, thorns, or claws, and even have seeds that will let you know when they drop down your boot, or end up in your foot. Working in this environment has been difficult for us and hilarious for our guides who get a good chuckle every time we find a new plant that doesn’t want to be found.

Avimasy, Lance, and Herilala affix a telemetry unit to the 7th of 50 tortoises that will be tracked following their release into the forest.

Over all though, our first four days at the release site have been very successful. Our team consists of TSA-Madagascar Director Herilala Randriamahazo, two of the keeper staff from the TCC, the community outreach specialist for this area, a student from the University of Antananarivo, our cook, a driver, and of course, Lance and myself.

The team’s driver works on a wheel bearing along the dirt road from the TCC to the release site several hours away.

It took us about 8 hours to make the 3-hour drive from the TCC to the release site due to a wheel bearing disintegrating out of our trusty Toyota Hilux. Luckily, we were in two cars and the second was able to make it back to the TCC to get a replacement part while the rest of us ate watermelon on the side of the road in a small village in the district of Beloha. After watching the driver replace the part with a hammer and chisel, in the sand on the side of the road in the mid-day sun, we got back on the road hoping nothing else would go wrong. That evening, after arriving at the village of the release site, we met with the community leaders and discussed the next morning’s activities before moving into the small two-room field office that would be our home for the next few weeks.

The next four days were consumed by surveying for resident tortoises, taking weights and measurements on our translocated tortoises within the soft-release pen, attaching radio transmitters and GPS loggers to a large number of them, and patching my air mattress with epoxy every time a new seed got brought into the room.

Avimasy (left) teaches members of the tortoise tracking team about the telemetry units affixed to the tortoises’ shells.

We have also spent a lot of time with the community that is protecting this forest where the tortoises will soon be fully liberated. Without these people this project couldn’t happen. Native forest habitats that Radiated Tortoises can live in are getting fewer and further between. As people feel the need to cut these forests for lumber or charcoal production, or to create more agricultural space, the tortoises lose more and more habitat. Much of the remaining habitat left for these animals are considered sacred forests and are used by the communities that are protecting them as a place to bury their dead and honor their ancestors This community sees past the value of cutting the forest for short-term profit, and is dedicated to protecting it and the tortoises that live there.

Community engagement is core to TSA’s Confiscation to Reintroduction Strategy as, ultimately, the tortoise’s future is in their hands.

There is still quite a bit more work to do, but for now we are taking a break (and a shower) at Lavanono Bay. Tomorrow we head back to the release site and will follow the local tradition of offering a Zebu to the village for sacrificial blessing of the project.

READ Radio-tracking Radiated Tortoises Volume. 2 HERE!

8 Comments

  1. Chris Banks on March 23, 2022 at 8:21 pm

    Enjoyed reading your blog guys. I didn’t get to the far south-west, but remember the TCC near Tshombe very fondly (and the huge pot-holes in the road less fondly). A truly fascinating place and wonderful people.

  2. ShireenColeman on March 23, 2022 at 8:43 pm

    Incredible adventure with such purpose. I loved reading about this project Hope there is more to come.

  3. Judy Dominek on March 24, 2022 at 9:14 am

    So wonderful to read the details of your adventures. Happy that the project is going smooth. Love all the details of the people and fauna (hope Brett’s air mattress survives).

  4. John Enz on March 25, 2022 at 9:45 am

    Amazing work! Great job to everyone all around!

  5. Kevin Gepford on March 29, 2022 at 10:40 pm

    You’re taking us right to the front lines, and it’s a wonderful story! Can’t wait to hear about the Zebu offering.

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