By Rick Hudson
I vividly recall our August 2010 Board meeting in Orlando. On that single day the TSA made – at the time – the most impactful and far-reaching decisions in our nine-year history. We agreed to hire three full-time positions: Director of Animal Management (Cris Hagen), Turtle Conservation Coordinator for Myanmar (Kalyar Platt), and Coordinator of Tortoise Conservation for Madagascar (Herilala Randriamahazo). Those actions changed the course of the TSA by firmly establishing a full-time presence in two global diversity hotspots, and would prove necessary to meeting the turtle conservation challenges that confronted us. I reflect on this because today – September 1 – represents the ten-year anniversary of our Madagascar program.
TSA launched a program in Madagascar in response to the widespread, and rapidly expanding, poaching of Radiated Tortoises that we uncovered in 2010, which – if left unchecked – would likely lead to the extinction of this iconic, and once abundant, species. We found piles of tortoise shells in every town we visited in the south, slaughtered for the bush meat trade, and brazenly left uncovered for anyone to see. Clearly this crisis demanded full-time attention, and the only conservation NGO left operating in the south was WWF. Tortoises were only part of their focus in the region, hence a niche for TSA existed.
Due to strong partnerships, first with The Orianne Society, then Utah’s Hogle Zoo, the TSA embarked on a massive public awareness campaign, targeting local, national, and international audiences. Our goals were to instill shock and outrage that illegal tortoise poaching was occurring so blatantly, and to improve capacity for enforcement and monitoring. To coordinate our enforcement activities, we hired Sylvain Mahazoatahy who set about mobilizing informant networks to monitor poachers. We quickly realized that every action produced both intended and unintended consequences.
Evidence of our program’s success appeared in a growing number of tortoise confiscations. With no existing means of effectively dealing with these seizures, we built five small triage centers where tortoises could be treated and stabilized prior to release. We also conducted training workshops to better prepare front-line workers who would be handling confiscations. When it became apparent that we would require a long-term strategy to responsibly reintroduce tortoises to the wild we conceptualized the Tortoise Conservation Center (TCC). This new center was designed to be the lynchpin of our Confiscation to Reintroduction Strategy in the south.
Following a successful fundraising campaign, and with 90 hectares granted to us in partnership with five local communities, the TCC opened in 2016 amidst great political fanfare and attention. This continues TSA’s tradition of building strong relations with communities that honor their custom of protecting tortoise populations. It is here that the battle to save the Radiated Tortoise will be won or lost.
Along our ten-year journey, we have implemented numerous program additions and changes, and realized distinct goals. In 2012, we built a primary school in the village of Antsakoamasy to serve as a regional model for the benefits that a community could derive from protecting tortoises. Further down the road, in 2016, we boldly hired three new staff positions: Ny Aina Tiana Rakotoarisoa as our first full-time veterinarian, Denis Andrianariosoa as construction coordinator for the TCC, and Riana Rakotondrainy as Research Coordinator (she currently manages the TCC).
About the time the TCC was preparing to break ground, the TSA began seeing a surge in the numbers of confiscated juvenile tortoises at the international airport in Antananarivo. Most of these were destined for Asian pet markets; all fell under TSA’s responsibility. Before the TCC officially opened, we had already accumulated over 3,000 confiscated tortoises for which to provide care, more than that the facility was originally designed to hold. Today, that number is closer to 9,000, necessitating multiple expansions.
But, it wasn’t until 8 years after program inception that TSA Madagascar was presented with our greatest challenge yet. Illegal tortoise poaching reached a crescendo in April 2018 when a record 10,000+ Radiated Tortoises were found languishing in a house in Tuléar, inhumanely stockpiled with many sick, dying, or dead. In what I consider to be TSA’s finest hour, we rapidly mobilized and deployed seven successive waves of volunteers to provide care for these unfortunate animals, saving the vast majority of them while simultaneously building a new facility, the Lavavolo Tortoise Center (LTC). Today, the LTC holds the largest number of Radiated Tortoises in captivity at a single site, ~15,000. This response, truly an international effort, underscored two things: 1) the ability of the turtle community to come together in a crisis, and 2) the TSA’s strong relationship with the zoo and aquarium community which made this effort not only possible, but incredibly successful. I have said this many times before but it bears repeating: Where would these tortoises be today if not for the TSA?
In taking on this amount of tortoises, we came to grips with the financial impact of caring for ~25,000 animals across multiple facilities and, the staff – both keepers and security – that would be required to do so. So, in 2018-2019, we began planning the arduous process of returning tortoises to the wild. Toward that goal, we received generous support from a number of organizations, most notably AZA’s Saving Animals from Extinction (SAFE) grant program.
Following the monumental confiscations that dominated 2018 were two major events that punctuated 2019. The first was a devastating fire that destroyed the TCC “operations center,” which contained senior staff offices, living quarters, and all communications and security systems. Due to the enormous outpouring of international support we were able to rebuild to 85% completion when the pandemic hit. The second was the purchase of a spacious house and walled-compound that now serves as our official headquarters in the nation’s capital. The acquisition of this facility signaled our long-haul commitment to tortoise conservation in Madagascar.
From humble beginnings in 2010, this program has grown into our largest, both fiscally, and in terms of staff, with 53. Sadly, however – in these times of COVID-19 – we are struggling mightily to keep this program afloat. These are incredibly challenging times for TSA financially, the Madagascar program in particular, as much of our support comes from zoos and aquariums, many of which are fighting to survive. Other impacts of COVID-19 were travel restrictions that caused us to postpone two tortoise roundup events at the TCC and LTC, and the significant delay of our tortoise reintroduction schedule. But, I know this program is resilient and will bounce back as it has always done. However, we will need a healthy zoo and aquarium community behind us if we are to match the achievements of the past ten years.
To our many staff that are on the front lines of tortoise conservation in Madagascar, I offer my heartfelt congratulations on this 10 Year Anniversary! Your dedication and commitment to TSA is remarkable, and I am proud that you are part of our global family. I look forward to the next 10 years with you, and I can’t wait to return to Madagascar. The best is yet to come!!