Building Partnerships to Save Madagascar’s Imperiled Tortoises

Southwestern Madagascar
The tortoises of southwestern Madagascar are in serious trouble, but fortunately a remarkable duo of devoted tortoise conservationists are working on their behalf through the Village des Tortues at Ifaty.  Bernard Devaux and Olivier Razandrimamilafiniarivo (Mami, for short) are running the largest tortoise facility in the south specifically created for these critically endangered tortoises. 

The facility holds several hundred radiated tortoises (Astrochelys radiata) as well as approximately 1000 specimens of the Madagascar spider tortoise (Pyxis arachnoides).  Having nearly 600 Northern spider tortoises (Pyxis a. brygooi), they maintain the largest collection of this, the rarest subspecies, anywhere in the world.  In January 2008, we had the opportunity to tour this excellent facility and meet with Mami. This brief visit catalyzed a developing partnership between TSA and the Village, one that promises to grow stronger with time and bring much needed resources towards the protection of these species.

The illegal trade in all Madagascan tortoises has grown dramatically in the last two decades, and countless populations have been decimated by over collection for the food and pet trades.  While only a small portion of the animals are confiscated by Malagasy authorities, it became clear they needed to be properly housed in a facility that met the needs of the species.  Obviously, one within their natural range would be optimal.  Bernard Devaux, the visionary who created the SOPTOM, or tortoise village, facilities in France and Senegal, brought his expertise and resources to Ifaty.  The facility was opened in April 2005 and has needed to expand ever since.  In a perfect congruence of circumstances, TSA inquired how we might help, and shortly thereafter we were planning new breeding enclosures for spider tortoises.  Program SOKAPILA was born. Construction got underway in October 2008 and the facilities were completed in November.  Measuring 126 square meters (14 x 9 m), the facility is divided into three units for each of the three Pyxis subspecies, each with a 9 x 4 m space. Fifteen tortoises per subspecies were transferred to the new enclosures in mid-November, the beginning of the rainy season and the tortoise peak activity period. The new exhibit allows smaller groups to be maintained in each section, which more closely resembles the densities found in the wild.  Another potential outcome is improved captive management for breeding and future release.

The TSA, with support from Roy Young and Nature‚Äôs Own, Los Angeles Zoo, Knoxville Zoo and the sale of a lot of onyx tortoise sculptures, has been able to raise thousands of dollars to expand tortoise enclosures and security at the park.  The Village des Tortues plays a critical role in protecting the tortoises of the Southwest, and large numbers have been brought here over the years from confiscations.  At the time of our visit, the Village had recently taken in over 100 spider tortoises and 20 radiated tortoises.  To better handle this responsibility, a new quarantine/hospital facility is now under construction that will allow tortoises to be thoroughly checked for parasites and disease symptoms before being added to the colony.
The TSA looks forward to building a strong working relationship with the management and staff of the Village that will benefit tortoises not only in captivity but also in the wild.  To make this a reality Mr. Devaux recently announced Program SOKAKE that is being launched under the able leadership of Antoine Cadi with the goal of re-establishing wild populations of radiated tortoise in areas of former abundance.  The first field project will be near the Lac Tsimanampetsotsa Reserve, 150 km to the south of Tulear, and will involve the relevant government agencies as well as French and Malagasy students.  The TSA is committed to this ideal and will support the program as it develops.  We have a difficult road ahead of us but we believe that strong collaborations and partnerships are the way forward and with perseverance, we can secure a future for the remarkable tortoises of the spiny deserts or southwest Madagascar.  

Ploughshare tortoises
In recent years, poaching and smuggling for the international pet trade have posed an increasingly grave threat to the remaining wild populations of ploughshare tortoises, or angonoka (Astrochelys yniphora), and a disturbing number of illegal tortoises now appear on Chinese web sites, or are confiscated in Bangkok, Singapore or Hong Kong. A workshop - Turtles on the Brink - was held January 2008 in Antananarivo to devise a plan of action for Malagasy chelonians, with A. yniphora as the priority species.  Among the priority recommendations from the workshop were to stop the poaching and illegal traffic of this species by improving local infrastructure and law enforcement. Specifically, to do so by establishing permanently manned bases close to wild populations, with more guards and better equipment. Presently there is insufficient infrastructure at the Baly Bay National Park to adequately protect against poaching, and smugglers are becoming increasing bold in their attempts.

Since 1986, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT) has led efforts to prevent the extinction of the angonoka, recognized as the one of world‚Äôs rarest and most critically endangered tortoises with fewer than 400 adults in the wild.  The captive breeding center at Amphijora has produced more than 200 captive born tortoises, 45 of which have been successfully released into natural habitat at Baly Bay.  However, much of the progress made by DWCT and others over the past 20 years could be negated within the next five unless drastic and substantive measures are taken soon.

The idea of developing monitoring camps, better surveillance capacity and an improved communications network near core tortoise areas in the National Park was first advanced in 2006 by the DWCT.  In response to this, the TSA began fundraising to assist this process, and earmarked $15,000 in the 2007 Batchelor Foundation grant for this purpose.  Those funds remain unspent.  However, with the Ploughshare Tortoise Action Plan nearing completion (and hopefully, swift approval by government) the monitoring camp concept should be closer to becoming reality.  Anticipating this, the TSA has again undertaken a fundraising campaign and enlisted the assistance of two partner organizations ‚Äì Behler Chelonian Center (BCC) and the San Diego Zoo (SDZ).  The AZA Chelonian Advisory Group (ChAG) will also contribute funds ($10,000).  With a $25,000 combined annual commitment over three years ($75,000 total) by BCC and SDZ, and with $15,000 in Year One from TSA and at least $10,000 per year after that, the overall minimal funding commitment equals roughly  $50,000 in 2010 and $35,000 in 2011 and 2012. This is promising, but when one considers that a $50,000 powerboat to patrol the coast line will have to be purchased in Year One, it shows that we still have more funds to raise.

The TSA and the BCC are also committed to other priority actions from the Action Plan including improving the captive breeding center, building separate quarantine facilities, and expanding the reintroduction program.  The establishment of ex situ (outside Madagascar) captive breeding populations has also been recommended and is jointly supported by the TSA, BCC and AZA ChAG.  These captive groups can be founded with confiscated tortoises that have been seized illegally outside of Madagascar, with no impact to either the wild populations or in situ captive program.  Aside from serving as a genetic reservoir, captive yniphora can be utilized to raise fund and generate publicity.  Recently the TSA coordinated the filing of two CITES import permits for yniphora being held in Hong Kong and Singapore in order to be prepared if and when specimens become available for placement.  BCC and SDZ would be the first U.S. recipients of these illegally seized tortoises. 

- Rick Hudson and Michael Ogle