Team TSA in Madagascar - Part 1

by Rick Hudson on March 18, 2010

Team Madagascar is Rick Hudson (Fort Worth Zoo/TSA), Brian Horne (San Diego Zoo/TSA), Bonnie Raphael, DVM and Berni Leahy (Wildlife Conservation Society).  We are guided by Herilala Randrianmahazo (WCS Madagascar) and accompanied by Tsanta, a 5th year veterinary student.

Goals and objectives:

1) Assist the WCS veterinary team in sampling Radiated Tortoise populations at Cap St. Marie Special Reserve, for disease screening (herpes virus, mycoplasma, iridovirus and intranuclear coccidia), parasites and physiologic blood values; this is a repeat of some of the work done in 1998 to detect if any changes have occurred.
2) Conduct pre-release health screen exams on a group of 50 radiata at Village des Tortues in Ifaty that are due to be released at Lac Tsiamananpetsoa in late 2010;
3) Collect samples from wild animals at Lac Tsimanampetsotsa for disease screening prior to this release;
4) Continue to collect GPS data on Spider Tortoise, Pyxis arachnoides, populations throughout coastal southwest Madagascar for the ongoing GIS mapping project;
5) Collect information for a grant proposal to secure funding to develop a model community-based protection program for Radiated Tortoises.  Potential target sites are Cap St Marie, Lavavolo and Lac Tsiamananpetsoa. 
6) Provide training to veterinary student, Tsanta, from the veterinary school in Tana.

Foreword:  The Radiated Tortoise, Astrochelys radiata, once a commonly seen denizen of the southern Madagascar landscape, has disappeared from vast tracts of its former range. Once considered abundant, the Radiated tortoise is now ranked Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, and extinction in the wild is a distinct possibility within the next 20 years unless drastic protective measures are taken. Areas that in the 1990s - when a two hour late afternoon drive yielded scores of Radiated tortoises ‚Äì have been poached clean.  Back then one could hardly fathom that this beautiful tortoise could ever become endangered, but such is the world we live in, and things can ‚Äì and do -change rapidly.

Unfortunately the local customs or taboos (fady) that protected tortoises for centuries have broken down, or are not respected by outsiders.  In particular areas near urban centers (Tulear, Ft Dauphin) have been hunted out for food.  But recent evidence is even more disturbing as the search for tortoises reaches distant and remote areas.  Poaching camps have been discovered with the remains of thousands of Radiated tortoises, and truck loads of tortoise meat have been seized recently.  Tortoise meat is sold openly now in towns such as Beloha and Tsiombe, and poachers are often well armed and difficult to apprehend.   But perhaps the most troubling trend is that poachers are now entering protected areas (Special Reserves, National Parks, World Heritage Sites) to collect tortoises and the staff there are poorly equipped to patrol and protect populations.  The situation is exacerbated by several factors: 
1) Several years of extreme drought that have led to diminished rice and agricultural production, and poverty that leads people to tortoise hunting for survival:
2) The fact that enforcement must be initiated from afar (Tana or a regional office) so that local officials do not have the capacity to stop poachers; they must get enforcement action from often days away.  
3) Severe habitat degradation of the spiny forest, now regarded as the most endangered forest type in Madagascar and few intact examples remain.  Following burning and clearing for agriculture (slash and burn) invasive plant species take over and today thick stands of opuntia (prickly pear) and sisal (agave) dominate the landscape.  The problem is made worse by an over abundance of zebu cattle that sustain themselves on opuntia and facilitate its dispersal.  Large number of goats also share the habitat, and charcoal production consumes any large trees left standing after burning.  In this highly disturbed and man-altered habitat, the Radiated tortoise is still able to ‚Äúmake a living‚Äù and survive.  However the tortoise can not survive the current threat of wholesale collection for food markets.
4) Recent collapse of the central government and political instability.  In short the government is effectively shut down, tourism is down, and everything is for sale to keep the government ‚Äúrunning.‚Äù

Day 1-3, March 5-7 -  the capital city of Tana, short for Antananarivo:  getting over jet lag, meetings with James MacKinnon (CI Madagascar Director) and Ed Louis (Omaha Zoo Madagascar Biodiversity Program), getting permits organized (research and export application) and trying to retrieve lost luggage.  Fortunately my bag arrives from Paris just five hours before we are due to depart for the remote south for two weeks. 

Day 4, March 8 ‚Äì fly to Ft Dauphin at 5:50 am, then drive west to Faux Cap for the evening. Very stormy night.  Here you can search the dunes and find pieces of egg shell from the extinct elephant bird, a gigantic relative of the ostrich.  The bird was hunted to extinction about 1500 years ago and the egg held more than a gallon of fluid.  Reconstructed eggs can sometimes be seen in local hotels and shops.


Day 5, March 9 ‚Äì Off to a bad start:  we explored the garbage dump sites near the Hotel Libertalia and village of Faux Cap and found massive numbers of Radiated Tortoise shells, most recently slaughtered.  Estimated at 200 ‚Äì 250, mostly adults but some surprisingly small tortoises (palm size).  Very depressing evidence of further radiata wholesale harvesting.  It occurred to me while we were picking through the remains of so many tortoise shells that future generations (and not that far off) could very well find themselves picking through such sites looking for Radiated Tortoise shells and wondering ‚ÄúHow could we have let this happen?‚Äù  We left in grim spirits and drove on toward the Cap St Marie (CSM) Special Reserve. 

Along the road we began encountering Radiated Tortoises and started taking GPS data. 65 were counted as we neared the Reserve and we soon learned why.  A village on the edge of the Reserve ‚Äì Sakoamasy ‚Äì  has a strong tradition of protecting tortoises hence the abundance.  We had long discussions with village elders to try and understand their incentive for guarding tortoises.  Checked in at the Reserve headquarters and then drove 45 minutes to a resort at Lavanono owned by a colorful frenchman - Monsieur GiGi.  Fantastic surroundings, food and hospitality.  That he has created this ‚Äúresort‚Äù in such a desolate, barren and water deprived landscape is a tribute to his sheer force of will and determination.  A true force of nature!


Day 6, March 10 ‚Äì up early and to CSM Reserve, checked in, picked up a guide and drove to the lighthouse overlooking the sea.  This is the most southern tip of Madagascar, a harsh and wind-swept landscape that supports a surprisingly large population of Radiated tortoises - protected by the remoteness and inaccessibility of the Reserve. Began seeing the southern spider tortoise, Pyxis a. oblonga, on the road in and continued taking GPS data and blood samples for genetics. We set up a makeshift lab on the steps of the lighthouse and began processing Radiated tortoises.  Blood samples and fecals are collected, and swabs of both the cloaca and the oral cavity are taken  Our goal is to sample 50 tortoises here in two days, which is basically a repeat of a 1998 WSC survey of health and disease status of wild Radiated tortoise populations.  We get 25 samples by noon and head back at 1 PM to set up the lab.   The radiata population at CSM is the most abundant and concentrated of any in Madagascar, and all age classes are present.  Mercifully, we are blessed with abundant cloud cover and the working conditions are pleasant.  This is in stark contrast to the normally brutal and intense heat that is usually experienced at CSM by 10 am.


I should point out that we are essentially carrying a mobile laboratory with us with the ability to not only collect and process huge numbers of biological samples, but to keep them cool in the field.  This means that we travel with a propane fueled portable freezer, and a liquid nitrogen tank.  It is essential that these samples stay cool or frozen and do not heat up.  Given how much has been invested in this research mission (thanks to a generous grant from Andy Sabin to WCS), these samples must reach the labs in the U.S. in good condition.

Day 7, March 11 ‚Äì back to CSM to a different area that is abundant with Radiated tortoises. Here we discovered and shot video of what we described as ‚Äútortoise field of dreams‚Äù.  Recent rains produced new shoots of grass and in cleared areas large numbers of tortoises could be seen contentedly grazing. This is one of those special places that I fear will not survive the coming onslaught.  As tortoise populations outside of protected areas are cleaned out then poachers will ‚Äì and have already ‚Äì begin collecting from protected areas.  However experiencing this pristine tortoise population certainly strengthens one‚Äôs resolve to protect it.  We must find a way to help the Reserve staff become better at their job which means more staff, improved transportation for surveillance and manned checkpoints at all roads in.  

Collected samples from another 25 tortoises and continue taking GPS coordinates on both Pyxis and radiata.  Without expending too much effort we marked points for at least 20 Pyxis a. oblonga which is encouraging.

Day 8, March 12 ‚Äì up early for the drive to Ampanihy where we will spend the night.  We stop in the town of Beloha where a local tortoise ‚Äúprotector‚Äù shows us the garbage dump site with more evidence of wholesale tortoise slaughter with shells everywhere.  We are told that the meat is sold openly here in the markets and that this market is exerting a major ‚Äúdrain‚Äù on nearby populations.


Day 9, March 13 ‚Äì settled in for the long and arduous drive to Lac Tsimanampetsotsa   Recent hard rains had made the road treacherous and we had to change course one time, unable to pass the trucks and vehicles stuck in the mud.  Interestingly we encountered our first Pyxis a. arachnoides along this road which is considerable distance from the coast, a puzzling scenario.  This waypoint - 102 km from the coast - will definitely be an ‚Äúoutlyer‚Äù on our GIS map. After some serious slipping, sliding and falling in the mud, we managed to reach the small beach resort on the edge of the Reserve.

Day 10, March 14 ‚Äì  we drive into the Reserve at Lac Tsimanampetsotsa to begin sampling radiata.  This is the site of a potential tortoise reintroduction in late 2010 and we need to understand what diseases the wild population may have been exposed to.  This Reserve has been hard hit by poachers so our guide takes us along a newly cut road through some beautiful, intact and semi-undisturbed spiny forest.  The absence of zebu cattle, opuntia and sisal is refreshing.  The habitat is rocky and hilly and uncharacteristic of the radiata habitat that we are accustomed to finding them in.  We search the forest for tortoises and find them sparsely, but get 12 before the noon heat sets in.  We find it odd that we encounter predominantly males, and that we are not seeing any other age classes besides old adults.  By noon we are struggling with the intense heat and sun, and head back to the hotel to begin processing samples.

Day 11, March 15 – more of the same at this site and the high points are finding a female radiata laying eggs, and a hatchling.

Day 12, March 16 ‚Äì drove the short distance to Anakao and collected Pyxis GPS data along the way.  We passed through the fishing village of Beheloka, a site that - on our first trip in 1991- had supported robust populations of both Pyxis and radiata, and where we had once enjoyed one of those special ‚ÄúMalagasy moments.‚Äù   Sadly tortoises are now gone from this area, having been collected out for the food and pet trade.  Anakao is a site that we worked in 2008 collecting GPS data on Pyxis and our goal is to recheck this population.  After it cools off for the day- Pyxis are most active between 7 ‚Äì 9 am and again between 4 ‚Äì 7 pm when temperatures are not extreme - we drive south on the road to Beheloka and count 12 Pyxis, including one ancient female with a nearly completely yellow carapace.  All in all we have about 35 waypoints for this subspecies.

Day 13, March 17 ‚Äì took a boat from Anakao up the coast to Tulear.  Arrived at low tide and were transported through the tidal mud flats to the beach by zebu drawn oxcart, a truly unique Malagasy experience.

Tomorrow we head north to Ifaty and the Village des Tortues for more tortoise sampling.  Stay tuned.

Rick Hudson, TSA President