Madagascar Tortoise Conservation Expedition

by Christina Castellano 

The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and Utah's Hogle Zoo (HZ) conducted their latest field expedition in March 2013 as part of the Madagascar Tortoise Conservation Project. The goals of the expedition were to:

sokake_activity_book• Conduct an assessment of last year's public awareness campaign using survey questionnaires and focus groups;

• Distribute new campaign materials and education workbooks;

• Identify tortoise release sites to be incorporated into the reintroduction program;

• Develop a research methodology to evaluate release strategies;

• Discuss the creation of temporary holding pens to facilitate confiscations with community leaders;

• Conduct follow-up meetings with the World Bank (WB) and Madagascar National Parks (MNP) to determine status of WB funding of project; and

• Develop an eco-tour to bring social and economic benefits to the communities associated with the reintroduction program.

This year our field crew included me (Christina Castellano, HZ), Riana Rakotondrainy (HZ), Saaya Tema (RAW Africa), Ryan Walker (TSA), Andrea Currylow (Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership (MBP)), Sylvain Mahazotahy (TSA), and Soary Randrianjafizanaka (TSA). Herilala Randriamahazo (TSA) was unable to join us in the field, but organized meetings and continued to facilitate the program from Antananarivo (Tana).


Our first morning in Tana was spent shopping for school supplies for the public awareness and education campaign including pens, pencils, crayons, sharpeners, and candy to accompany the new education materials that we developed with the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders (EWCL) group.

In the afternoon, Riana and I met with two representatives from the intermediary funding agency between MNP and WB to discuss acquiring funds from the WB to support our program. They requested that we meet with MNP and the Director of the Cap Sainte Marie Special Reserve (CSMSR) to establish the Terms of Reference, complete the MOU and adjust the budget. We scheduled a follow-up meeting upon our return to Tana at the end of our trip.


Riana and I flew from Tana to Ft. Dauphin to meet up with Soary, Ryan, Andrea, and Sylvain. We met in the afternoon to discuss the trip itinerary and goals. We went to the markets to purchase food and provisions for the trip and spent the night in Ft. Dauphin.


ring_tailed_lemurWe picked-up Saaya Tema from the airport and drove to the Berenty Reserve (Saaya's ecotourism company develops trips associated with wildlife conservation programs). At Berenty we discussed the potential of the Reserve to be a destination point for the new tortoise eco-tour. We walked forest trails, discussed the area and wildlife with a local guide, visited the Androy Cultural History Museum, and went on a night walk.


In the morning we drove two hours to Ambovombe to meet with the head of the Forestry Department to discuss the location and details of the holding pens. He and his colleagues were very positive and excited about the construction of the pens. A site was selected in an area immediately adjacent to the Forestry Department office. It was requested that the facility include an education component that ties into the mission of the Forestry Department including habitat protection and the importance of native plants. We discussed tying in the ecological role of the tortoise as a seed disperser and to include interpretive graphics, a garden, and a sitting area for school children.

tortoise_cons_committeeIn the afternoon, we conducted our first round of social surveys to evaluate the effectiveness of our public awareness campaign. We ask groups of women, men, and children to participate to determine if the impact of our messaging was dependent on sex and/or age. Once the surveys were completed we had a group social at the café with all of the survey participants.

In the evening, we hosted a meeting for the newly formed Tortoise Conservation Commission composed of the regional heads of the local and national police, Forestry Department, and District. The Commission discussed an action plan for tortoise conservation that they developed last year, but despite their resolve realize that the actions need funding and requested that we work together to make the action plan functional. We shared the new education materials and discussed the goals of our current expedition. The Commission said that there has been an increase in awareness associated with our campaign and said that shells are no longer visible in towns like Tsiombe and Beloha, but whether people have stopped eating tortoises or have become better at hiding the remains has yet to be determined.

children_in_tsiombeDAY FIVE

We drove three hours to Tsiombe where we conducted the social surveys at the Hotel Paradise Sud and distributed activity books to the children that participated in the surveys. We also distributed posters to each of the participants.

In the afternoon we met Haja, the new Director of the Cap Sainte Marie Special Reserve, the most important location for wild tortoises, and discussed the details of the project. We spent the night in Tsiombe and prepared for a morning meeting to discuss the holding pens for confiscated tortoise to be built in this town.


In the morning we met with Haja, along with the Mayor of Tsiombe, Chief of the District, and Chief of the National Police to discuss the construction of holding pens in Tsiombe. They were very supportive and believed that the pens will increase the ability of law enforcement to conduct confiscations. Like Ambovombe, they want to incorporate an education component to the design. They were unable to determine a location because they wanted to include other members of the community in order to have transparency in the process and buy-in from the community. They organized a meeting for the following week to determine the exact location.

After the meeting we invited Haja to join us in our travels to Marovato and Antsakoamasy that afternoon. We met with the Mayor in Marovato. He confirmed his commitment to tortoise conservation and said that his home was our home and that we didn't need to bring money or gifts, just ourselves when we visit. He said that we have demonstrated that we love the tortoises and Madagascar by continuing to travel to the south from so far. He said that he believes that there has been an impact by our campaign. The traffic has lessened in the area; there have been fewer incidents of poaching. We gave him posters and shared the activity books with him and thanked him again for his support.

antsakoamasy_social_surveyWe arrived at Antsakoamasy in the early evening. We were greeted with singing and dancing and warm welcomes. We sat with the village and discussed the ideas behind the social surveys and focus groups. They said that they are protecting the tortoises and that some of the released individuals have been found as far away as Marovato.

The released tortoises appear to be moving out of the release area. We gave activity books, writing pencils, colored pencils, and candy to the teacher to distribute to every child at the school. We also organized to meet the following afternoon to conduct the social surveys and a focus group after they returned from the markets. We overnighted at Lavanono.


Before heading back to Antsakoamasy, we traveled to Tranovaho to determine if it was an appropriate site for release. We sat with the village matriarch, discussed our intentions and ate the obligatory welcome dish called habobo.

We were later joined by the village President and walked to the nearby sacred forest to determine if it should be incorporated into the program as a release site or protected site for an existing wild population. We found four less than one year old individuals and two juveniles. The site was deemed unsuitable for release because it supports a good population; in addition, the President said that we would not be able to build pens in the sacred forest.

cap_st_marie_tortoiseWe then walked to a potential release site and discussed it as a second site for Soary's research and opportunities for Andrea to piggy-back data collection for her project. We then met with the President and gave him activity books, pencils, and crayons for all of the local school children.

We headed back to Antsakoamasy in the afternoon, but stopped at the Cap Sainte Marie Special Reserve to show Saaya this incredibly important location for the tortoises, our project's epicenter, and also a potentially great place to bring people through the eco-tour. We ventured to area known for its iconic lighthouse and high density of tortoises.

We returned to Antsakoamasy in the afternoon to conduct the social surveys and focus group. We gave everyone posters and provided the village with several bottles of rum (the traditional gift) to thank them. We then headed back to Lavanono for the night.


In the morning we drove to Beloha to meet with the Head of the District, a representative from the Mayor's office, Head of the Gendarmerie (national police), and a representative of the traditional community, including the dead ancestors. The District Head reaffirmed that this region is the only one on this side of the Menarandra River that still has tortoises and that they are critical to its conservation. They all agreed that poaching continues. They likened the role of the Gendarmes to a coroner's office as they arrive only in time to do the autopsy. They said that most of what they see now is dried tortoise meat, they see less live tortoises being transported. They need motorbikes to reach places where there are poachers, the gendarmes are the only ones that frighten them and can do something about the situation. The villagers have a difficult time stopping the poachers because of the ziva, or brotherhood with the Antanosy tribe that collects tortoises, they can't do anything about it and often give them food and water. They do think that reporting has increased since the implementation of the Lalintanie and they are prepared to punish poachers if and when they catch them. The local leaders have prepared a local action plan and think it is time to have a workshop in Beloha to bring attention to the problem and identify and prioritize actions. They also said that actions have to be driven locally; and, they can see that we love tortoises and Madagascar and that this is something that we need to work on together.

Beloha_social_surveyWe also discussed the placement of the holding pens. We discussed several options, but they needed time to decide and get the Mayor's approval. They were going to meet during the following week and let us know. We then conducted the social surveys in Beloha before returning to Lavanono.

We drove back to Lavanono and spent the evening conducting the social surveys and gave activity books, pencils, crayons, and candy to the President of the Fokontany to distribute to the local school. We also spent time walking around Lavanono with Saaya as we want to incorporate this community into the eco-tour.


We made an early start and drove to Ampotaka. We met with the Chief to discuss Soary's project of assessing different reintroduction strategies, in particular building holding pens to house tortoises prior to release in order to increase their site fidelity. There was some debate over how to proceed among the community; they requested that Zebu sacrificial ceremonies be conducted before the construction of the pens in order to cleanse the site and after to celebrate the tortoises. We agreed to both in order to get the Chief's blessings.

Soary, Ryan and Andrea went for a forest walk to determine the pen locations and design. The local people said that the tortoises that had been previously released have travelled east and out of the forest. No tortoises were observed during this walk except for one that had been hacked-up and eaten.

Riana, Sylvain and I remained with the village and conducted the social surveys and focus group session. We overnighted in the village.


We made our way to the next village called Ampanihy for our next meeting to talk about the holding pens for confiscated tortoises. Our drive was long, more than six hours of very bumpy roads. We had to take the long way because the Menarandra River was too high to cross with our vehicles. We arrived in Ampanihy in the late afternoon, dirty and exhausted; we found accommodation, made the arrangements for our morning meeting, and went to sleep.


In the morning we met with a large group including the Mayor of Ampanihy, the Head of the District and an additional representative of the office, the Head of the Gendarmes, the Chief of Police, the Chief Forestry Agent, and the President of the Mahafaly Plateau Conservation Committee and an additional representative of the organization. They said that they want the holding pens very much; they do not want to transport tortoises to the confiscation center in Ifaty. They said that tortoises confiscated in this region should stay in this region to facilitate reintroductions. They believe that they can protect them if they remain within their jurisdiction. The President from the Mahafaly committee said that they are working with a local NGO called FAMARI on tortoise confiscation and would like them to be involved in the development of the pens. They were going to discuss the appropriate location for the pens and get back to us. They also wanted very much to have an educational component included.

tombAfter a long delay due to a tire repair, we got back on the road to bring Andrea to her study site in Lavavolo. Travelling on the roads in this region is extremely interesting not only because of the beautiful landscape, but also for the cultural beauty. Malagasy tribes in the south build elaborate tombs along the roads to increase their visibility. Some tribes believe that the tortoise embodies their dead ancestors. This belief keeps them from eating tortoises.

stuck_truckIt took about five hours to get to Lavavolo as we were able to cross the Linta River (the alternate road would have taken us 13 hours if the river was full), but this was not without delay as one of our vehicles got stuck in the sand. After saying good-bye to Andrea at Lavavolo, we drove another two hours to a hotel at the entrance to Tsimanampetsotsa National Park where we spent the night.


We made a very early start to Betioky in order to complete the full eight hour drive to Tulear that we had planned for the day. In Betioky we met with local agency heads to discuss the placement of the holding pens for tortoises confiscated in this area. We met with Mayor of Betioky, agent of the Forestry Department, Chief of the Gendarmes, and the Head of the District. They were very supportive of building the pens in Betioky. They said that there is still a lot of poacher activity in the area and they need assistance with caring for the tortoises once they are confiscated. It was proposed to build the pens at the Forestry office behind the agent's home near to the center of town. The area is large, close to the nearby elementary school, convenient for law enforcement, contains a water source and has a nearly constant presence. However, it will require some effort to remove the existing vegetation. We then drove to Tulear and met with the team at Blue Ventures to discuss programs that may be beneficial in the tortoise villages that we are working. We overnighted in Tulear and prepared for our morning flights back to Tana.


We said our good-byes to Sylvain, Soary, and our drivers and Riana, Saaya, Ryan, and I flew back to Tana. In the evening we prepared for our meeting with the World Bank that was scheduled for the following day.


Saaya returned to Kenya on an early morning flight, while Riana, Ryan, and I jumped in a taxi to meet Herilala at the World Bank complex in the center of the city. We discussed the program with their Operation Analyst for the Environment and Climate Change and Senior Economist for Sub-Saharan Africa. We discussed the status of the project and the allocation of World Bank funds to it; they asked that we meet with the intermediary agency to request the funds directly. We met with this agency after leaving the World Bank. They requested that we re-submit our proposal with actions for the next two-years.

In the afternoon, we met and discussed our project priorities and how to achieve them. Riana and Herilala will prepare our new proposal submission. In the evening, Ryan and I headed to the airport, jumped on a plane to Paris and headed home.


This expedition was funded by Utah's Hogle Zoo, Turtle Survival Alliance, Andrew Sabin Family Foundation, Turtle Conservation Fund, and the Phoenix Zoo.