Fine Tuning the Strategy to Save Madagascar’s Iconic Radiated Tortoise

by Jordan Gray

With the impending rainy season looming and an outbreak of pneumonic plague quickly becoming an epidemic on the island nation of Madagascar, Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) President Rick Hudson and Utah Hogle Zoo's (UHZ) Christina Castellano had little time to waste this October. On October 9th, after having received last-minute doses of doxycycline and ciprofloxacin to combat the plague-causing bacterium, Rick and Christina departed for their annual strategic planning session in Madagascar. Focused on the perpetuity of the critically endangered Radiated Tortoise (Astrochelys radiata), this annual session is so important to the fate of this species in the wild, even a deadly epidemic could not keep them away.

Radiated Tortoise

A young radiated tortoise patrols the coastal scrub of Cap Sainte Marie, Madagascar.

The Radiated Tortoise is considered by many to be the "American Bison" of Madagascar. An analogous story of extirpation, the tortoise, once numbering in the tens of millions, has disappeared from roughly 65% of its former range, with an estimated wild population reduction of nearly 100% in the next two decades. With tens of thousands of individual tortoises being illegally harvested from the wild each year, the refinement and continued implementation of a strategic action plan is paramount to survival efforts for the species. This strategic action plan for Radiated Tortoises, known as the "Confiscation to Reintroduction Strategy," is based on a multi-pronged conservation approach with bases in law enforcement, community outreach, reintroduction, habitat preservation, and the new joint TSA/UHZ Tortoise Conservation Center (TCC). Furthermore, this strategy for the survival of the Radiated Tortoise will now be bolstered by collaborative conservation efforts through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' (AZA) Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) initiative.

On the night of October 10th, after roughly 25-hour flights from Dallas-Fort Worth and JKF International Airports, Rick and Christina arrived at the Ivato International Airport in the capital city of Antananarivo (Tana), Madagascar. Ironically, Ivato International Airport has come to be known as the primary hub for illegal shipments of Malagasy tortoises leaving the country. It is estimated that thousands of Radiated, as well as Ploughshare (Astrochelys yniphora) and Spider (Pyxis ssp.) Tortoises, are smuggled through the airport's security weekly for destinations such as Malaysia, India, Bangkok, and Hong Kong. Due to the frequency in confiscation of these shipments - some of which can be attributed to corrupt security personnel - many of the thousands of tortoises at the TSA's facilities throughout the country originate from this airport.

Radiated Tortoise

Christina Castellano and Merina Anjeriniaina hold a tortoise at the facility in Tana.

Upon reaching Tana, Rick and Christina first set out for the TSA's confiscation and triage center located in the city's limits. This facility is critical for the immediate intake of confiscated tortoises from the airport. The facility's tortoises are managed by TSA Program Coordinator Herilala Randriamahazo, Lead Keeper Merina Anjeriniaina, and veterinarian Ny Aina Tiana Rakotoarisoa. Once safely at the facility, Ny Aina is able to provide immediate health assessments, triage, and acute medical care before the tortoises are transferred to the TCC, nearly 700 miles away. Due to this immediate action, there has been less than 1% mortality in tortoises once they reach the TCC.

After assessing the status of the facility and a recently confiscated group of over 300 Radiated Tortoises, Rick, Christina, Herilala, Ny Aina, and the several hundred tortoises traveled south to Madagascar's Tandroy Region, home to the TCC, and the stronghold for Radiated Tortoises. Joined by Sylvain Mahazotahy and Riana Rakotondrainy at the TCC, the six Malagasy tortoise specialists came together to formulate new action items, make status assessments, discuss the continued expansion of the TCC, and integrate the recently confiscated tortoises into the colony.

Radiated Tortoise

Confiscated tortoises enjoy mango after being released into their habitat at the TCC.

The TCC, a joint venture between the TSA and Utah's Hogle Zoo, is the key component to the "multi-faceted long-term conservation model for Malagasy tortoises" and "platform from which almost all of the other elements of the program will be built." Officially opened on 7 October 2016, the TCC encompasses 8 hectares (20 acres) of coastal spiny forest donated by the Ala Mahavelo Association. Now home to over 7,000 Radiated Tortoises confiscated from the illegal black market trade, the center serves as the linchpin for the future repatriation of these tortoises into secure, community-protected habitats.

Currently, the next phase of the TCC is underway with the building of a Community Outreach Center. This center will be located outside of the TCC facility so as to welcome all members of the community under its roof. With community relations, tribal customs, and social issues being at the forefront of Radiated Tortoise conservation, the center will be an important venue from which to purvey community action agenda items. These include public outreach programs, the discussion of community initiatives for reintroduction, creation of cultural awareness campaigns, and the bringing together of key members of tribes, communities, law enforcement, and conservation practitioners. As Rick states, "The battle to save Radiated Tortoises will ultimately be won or lost at the community level."

Radiated Tortoise

Tortoises rest in the shade of their spiny forest habitat at the TCC.

High on their list of agenda items for this trip - the bringing together of people from the local communities associated with the TCC - had to be cancelled due to the potential for spreading the plague. Despite this, the trip was a highly successful engagement of minds, and included the gifting of a motorbike by UHZ to the local tortoise patrol team at Lavanono, one of our partner communities. Lavanono is strategically positioned close to some very important tortoise populations, and is within a "stone's throw" of a notorious poaching village that has been cited numerous times for violations. As simple as one motorbike may sound, this will tremendously aid them in patrolling roads through tortoise habitat and monitoring poaching activity.

Of great importance to a new initiative for the TSA, this trip also allowed time to develop specific plans for the Ploughshare Tortoise. With less than 200 individuals surviving in the wild, the Ploughshare Tortoise is one of the most critically endangered reptiles on earth, having been driven to near extinction by poaching for the black market trade. Having recently been assigned an official role by the Madagascan government, the TSA and our joint TSA/Hogle Zoo's Madagascar facilities will supply crucial space and a protected captive environment for an in situ assurance colony for the species.

Ploughshare Tortoise
Ploughshare Tortoise or Angonoka, Astrochelys yniphora

In situ conservation of the Ploughshare Tortoise is a new initiative for the TSA.

After a 10-day whirlwind trip, Rick and Christina returned to the United States with new action items and a renewed commitment to "turn the tide" for the beleaguered tortoises of Madagascar. This coming May, they will return to Madagascar to take part in the filming of the conservation work being performed for Madagascar's tortoises by a major media network. In the meantime, look for Rick's in-depth article into the multi-pronged conservation approach for Madagascar's tortoises in the upcoming 2017 TSA Magazine.