By Jordan Gray
Three years ago this week, TSA faced a crisis of epic proportions. This moment in time would become a poignant reiteration of TSA’s ability to take swift and decisive action in the midst of a chelonian crisis. This crisis, however, was different from any others before it in our organization’s history in terms of its scale and logistics.
Just before 6:00 PM on April 10, 2018, TSA’s US-based staff received an email from the director of our TSA-Madagascar program Herilala Randriamahazo. The subject line read “Re: 8,000-10,000 confiscated tortoises in Toliara.” The tortoises he referred to were Radiated Tortoise (Astrochelys radiata), a critically endangered tortoise endemic to the spiny forests of southern Madagascar. The collective response of TSA’s staff was one of shock followed by the logic of, “this can’t be correct.” Our TSA-Madagascar program routinely receives confiscations of Madagascar’s native tortoises including Radiated, Spider, Ploughshare, and Hinge-back tortoises, but never in this quantity. Herilala echoed this logic stating, “This seizure can’t be true but we will see.”
The information relayed to our Madagascar headquarters in Antananarivo was that the Directeur Regional de l’Environment, de ‘Ecologie et des Forets (DREEF) of the Atsimo-Andrefana region was in the process of counting the seized tortoises, with a preliminary estimate of roughly 10,000. Earlier that day, local authorities, with the help of the DREEF, raided a single residence in the coastal city of Toliara (Tuléar), because of unusual activity being reported there. TSA administrative staff began making mental preparations should the number of tortoises be even remotely accurate. We would need to launch an all-hands-on-deck response of unprecedented proportions. Although a confiscation of this magnitude would be extremely challenging, the TSA, thanks to the support of its loyal members and donors, had become known for its swift and decisive action, deploying resources rapidly and effectively in times of crisis. Hours later, our worst fears were confirmed: an improbable 10,196 specimens of a singular critically endangered species had been confiscated.
Immediately, TSA staff sprang into action, generating a call to arms for personnel, funding, and logistical support from the global conservation and animal welfare community. Help poured in. Zoos and aquariums, nonprofits, NGOs, and private individuals from around the world—including Australia, Cambodia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Italy, Madagascar, New Zealand, Poland, and the United State—answered the call. In total, more than 70 organizations and 500 individual donors aided TSA’s mobilization effort for one singular reason: to save tortoise lives. With this support, TSA and our partners spent the next week amassing supplies, coordinating a multitude of airline flights, requesting donations, and staying in round-the-clock communication with our staff on the ground in Madagascar.
The first life-saving step for the suffering tortoises was relocation to a facility that could accommodate such numbers. Luckily, that came in the form of SOPTOM’s (France) Villages des Tortues, in the village of Mangily, 30 kilometers south of Toliara. With habitats built into the native forest, this facility would rapidly become the base of operations for the rescue mission. There, on-the-ground veterinarians and tortoise caretakers from TSA, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and SOPTOM provided 10 days of veterinary and animal care to the thousands of tortoises before the international contingent rapidly being assembled could arrive to provide relief. On April 21st, relief arrived in the form of veterinarians, veterinary technicians, pathologists, husbandry technicians, communications specialists, and construction experts. They brought with them more than half a metric ton of veterinary and other critical supplies. This would be the first of 7 waves to arrive in Madagascar, totaling 75 people providing boots-on-the-ground response to the crisis.
Over the course of 12 weeks, while the teams in Mangily provided critical care, a crew of volunteers and contractors spent weeks greatly expanded a facility in Lavavolo to eventually house the surviving tortoises. This included the building of sprawling forested enclosures into native spiny-forest habitat, guard stations, medical clinic, food preparation area, and a water distribution system. Situated southeast of Ifaty, the Lavavolo facility provides a safe environment for over 8,900 surviving members of the original 10,196 tortoises.
Sadly, of the original 10,196 animals seized, 1,225 of these beautiful and iconic tortoises did not survive—a tragedy guaranteed by their extended inhumane treatment by poachers before they were discovered. Although the loss of 1,225 tortoises to the scourge of wildlife trafficking is significant, the more than 6,000 medical assessments and treatments performed by our veterinarians provides evidence that thousands more would have died without intervention.
With a goal of eventually releasing the tortoises into protected sanctuaries within their native range, the TSA and our partners, with your help, are in this for the long haul. We are collectively pioneering a “Confiscation to Reintroduction” strategy that focuses on evaluating three key components: 1) community engagement, 2) habitat condition, and 3) poacher accessibility. Maintaining good relations with the local communities is integral to our security plans as they are our first line of defense against poachers. Our success will depend upon the willingness of local people to protect their tortoises. Until then, the 8,900 tortoises from this confiscation, along with another 16,000 also in our care in Madagascar, will continue to rely on us for daily care until they can return to the wild.
This profound experience left not only an indelible mark on those who participated, but a stronger bond among members of the international conservation community, and serves to highlight the profound impacts that illegal wildlife trade has on threatened turtles and tortoises everywhere.
P.S. In the three years since this crisis unfolded, TSA’s Madagascar program has received hundreds of other tortoises confiscated from poachers. As of this writing, another 192 Radiated Tortoises were confiscated in the small village of Beloha last week. Several arrests have been made. These tortoises are now receiving care at our Tortoise Conservation Centre near Tsihombe.