March 25, 2022
By Lance Paden
The 17th of March started like most days our first full week in-country. We had an early breakfast consisting of rice, toast-like crackers with orange jam/Laughing Cow Cheese, and a cup of hot black tea. We then loaded down the Toyota Hilux with a full bed of gear and ~16 passengers (our crew plus around 10 community members for whom we provided a lift to the closest town’s market, some 10 km away).
Our two main objectives for the day were to meet the town’s Mayor and consult with him about our tortoise monitoring activities, and select and purchase a zebu cow for the sacrificial blessing of the TSA’s newest field office in the region. Our meeting with the Mayor went well; he was happy to have us come meet him in person and said that he was already aware of some of TSA’s tortoise work going on (word travels surprisingly fast, even in such remote areas).
After the meeting, Brett and I took the opportunity to wander the market stalls and see what was for sale as several of the community members that came with us sought out the perfect zebu for Saturday’s blessing ceremony. This was an interesting process, as we had probably passed more than 100 zebus on the drive into town that morning that appeared to be perfectly acceptable candidates to Brett and I. We, however, are not zebu evaluation experts. It was later explained to us that the proper zebu had to come from an outside village and be in excellent condition based on several criteria.
After about 4 hours Herilala received word that the perfect zebu was located in another nearby village, since none of the zebu for sale at the market met all the necessary criteria. Luckily though, Herilala assured us that the effort to acquire this particular zebu was well worth the time spent in search as its sacrificial blessing would essentially ensure a lifetime warranty for the new TSA building. Also, any additional western-style buildings such as a new school for the community should only require a sacrificial goat to bless them with in the future within this community. This is an especially important point because the traditional building materials in this community in southern Madagascar consists almost exclusively of sticks and minimally processed wood products harvested from the slow-growing trees of the spiny forest, and thatched roofs rather than concrete, bricks, sheet metal roofing, etc. With the zebu purchased, our team headed on to Lavanono Bay and then the TSA’s Tortoise Conservation Center near Tsihombe for a day of rest and restocking of supplies before returning to the Radiated Tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) recipient release site the following evening.
Our next morning back at the release site (March 19th) began by finishing the capture of around 300 translocated tortoises within the soft-release habitat to take pre-release weights, measurements, and visual assessments. This data will be compared to that taken when the 1,000 tortoises were initially released into the penned habitat. We also finished attaching radio transmitters and the GPS loggers I made to 35 of the translocated tortoises for future monitoring.
When we returned from the forest to the village we were greeted by about 40 men and young boys from the surrounding communities. The village elders held a long meeting under the shade of some large trees and discussed the ongoing tortoise work, the potential for a new school and where it should be located, and what their roles would be in protecting the reintroduced tortoises and forest itself. Once everything was settled everyone gathered in front of the TSA field office and the zebu we had purchased two days prior was led out for the sacrificial ceremony. In short order, our team was presented with two of the best cuts of meat as a sign of good will towards us and working collaboratively with these communities to conserve the Sokake (Radiated Tortoise). After we were offered our cuts of meat, several groups formed around the zebu as it was further divided for each man to take back a portion to their families in the surrounding communities.
The following couple days for me consisted of working with several different community member guides and our team members to conduct additional surveys for resident tortoises throughout the spiny forest surrounding the soft-release habitat. Brett took advantage of the cooler mornings during a “cold front” on these days to make the most of his drone batteries for overhead flights. With assist from our driver, Brett mapped the entirety of the release site with the drone’s camera.
On March 21st, we officially liberated the tortoises translocated there last July. With the help of several local community members who built the 6 hectare (~15 acre) penned habitat, three, 5-meter-wide, pen walls were removed at various locations along its perimeter to allow the 1,000 tortoises to wander out into the surrounding spiny forest at their leisure. I look forward to seeing where next week’s radio-tracking of the tortoises takes us across the site, and can’t wait to see what all we learn from the GPS logger movement data in about 6 months.
March 25, 2022
By Brett Bartek
This week was a week of productivity. As Lance has mentioned, we divided and conquered our field activities to make best use of our field time. He continued surveying for tortoises and attaching radio and GPS telemetry devices to their shells with the rest of the team.
On that note… With our limited access to internet we have, when possible, noticed on social media some concern over the placement of our GPS data loggers. These tortoises are all subadults, meaning they will not be reproductively active for a few more years—plenty of time for us to learn what we need to learn and remove the loggers. And, for reassurance, even if they were reproductively active, the placement of the loggers would not interfere with normal reproductive behavior. They are placed far enough forward on the carapace (top shell) that they would be out of the way.
I used my early morning hours to fly the drone before all of the equipment overheated by late morning. One of our work goals for our trip here was to use a drone to create a high-resolution aerial image of the protected area. This map will be used by TSA staff for habitat analysis, trail maps, tortoise home range analysis, and a wide variety of other things.
I had practiced my mapping skills back in the U.S. but was not aware of the size of the area until I arrived on the ground here. Over the last week I created a map of an area that is approximately 2,700 acres (1,093 ha). Combine this with the overheating issues and the fact that all our power needs for the project are coming from a single 50-watt solar panel, and I’m pretty impressed that we got it done!
In the afternoons I helped with more surveys and radio-tracking. During these times, as well as after dinner, we have had quite a few other memorable wildlife encounters. One that really sticks out includes the Verreaux’s sifaka (a type of lemur) that inhabit the protected forest. We had seen and heard them from a distance on a few occasions so far, but were told they were terribly skittish and would flee if approached.
One afternoon, while looking for resident tortoises deep in the forest, Herilala and I got separated from the rest of the group and decided to survey back towards the vehicle, about a mile (1.6 km) away. As we headed back I heard a group of sifakas in a nearby tree and decided to try to sneak up on them to get a good look. To my surprise, they knew darn well I was there and the group of five primates leapt through the subcanopy toward me until I could almost reach out and touch them! They seemed just as interested in me as I was in them and they inspected me for a few minutes while hopping through the trees and shrubs around me. I was in such shock I didn’t even think to pull out my camera until a few had hopped off. I was able to get a couple decent photos of the last animal before it disappeared back into the bush.
We finished up our walk by finding tortoise number 14 near the truck and met up with the rest of the team who had harvested some honey comb, which we snacked on in the back of the truck while riding back to camp.
As I write this, I’m sitting on the beach at Lavanono Bay listening to the waves crash, eating my breakfast of toast and fruit. Later today we will be back in the forest, tracking all of our tortoises one more time over the next three days before heading back to TSA’s Tortoise Conservation Center for our next adventure. Stay tuned!