by Rick Hudson
The TSA Madagascar Program is pleased to announce that the first of four planned tortoise rescue centers in the south has been built at Ambovombe, the administrative capital of the Androy Region. The native people – known as Tandroy – have traditionally held the strongest taboos (known as fady) against harming tortoises amongst the eighteen tribes in the country. Despite the importance of the taboo, Ambovombe is also well-known for tortoise consumption and corruption related to transportation of tortoises. Establishing the first Rescue Center here will set an example from the top, and will remind the people about the cultural value of the taboo and tortoise conservation. The Center will also serve as a place that will hopefully change behavior for other regional authorities and influence school kids through organized tours.
These Centers are part of the TSA’s comprehensive Confiscation to Reintroduction strategy designed as part of an ongoing process to transition tortoises seized from poachers back into protected areas. TSA staff have been overwhelmed during most of 2013 as they are called on to handle an increasing number of confiscated tortoises, both from the airport in the captital city of Antananarivo as well as various points in the south. This massive increase is likely due to increased awareness among airport authorities, with accompanying international pressure to deal with the rampant illegal export of tortoises to Asia. This trade that has become increasingly visible to those monitoring international traffic in endangered species and smugglers are now being monitored more closely. In the south the uptick in tortoise seizures can be attributed to the application of a regional DINA, a self-enforcing pact that commits local communities to help safeguard tortoise populations and not tolerate poaching from outsiders. DINAs are important forms of law for local villages, are often transcend national laws that are largely unknown to rural people. The TSA is helping with the implementation of the DINA by providing transportation funds to gendarmes, to reach the site of the violation to make arrests.
Construction on the next Center – located in Ampanihy – will get underway soon, to be followed by facilities in Betioky then Tsiombe, a major tortoise trafficking hub. TSA’s southern Madagascar headquarters will soon be moving to Beloha in an attempt to have greater impact in this well-known tortoise poaching center and we will be introducing a new staff member for this important region in the near future.
In addition to building greater capacity to handle confiscated tortoises in the south, we will be conducting research to determine the best strategies for returning them to the wild. The new Centers will provide time to better plan releases, thereby improving their chances for survival, and will allow us to follow established international guidelines designed to reduce the risk of disease transmission.
This program was generously funded by grants from the Zoo Boise Conservation Fund, Columbus Zoo, Toronto Zoo, and the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. In particular we want to thank Ed Louis and the Henry Doorly Zoo’s Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership for hosting the TSA Madagascar Tortoise Program and for helping to care for the hundreds of confiscated tortoises that have been trusted to our care.