As the tortoise poaching crisis in southern Madagascar reaches epidemic proportions, good news there is hard to come by. However the official opening of the TSA‚Äôs Tortoise Conservation Center (TCC) on 7 October 2016 emerged as a beacon of hope for the beleaguered Radiated Tortoise (Astrochelys radiata).
The TCC is a partnership between the TSA and Utah‚Äôs Hogle Zoo, and both Rick Hudson (TSA) and Christina Castellano (UHZ) were on hand for the opening day festivities. Amid great fanfare, the opening of the TCC was celebrated by hundreds of local people, and attended by Malagasy dignitaries, politicians, and officials, from both the local and national levels. At the center of the celebration were villagers from the four communities that comprise the Ala Mahavelo Association, the entity that donated the 92 hectare parcel of spiny forest habitat to the TSA in order to build the TCC. In a testament to the importance with which the Malagasy government has begun to view tortoise conservation, the ribbon cutting ceremony was presided over by Madagascar‚Äôs Minister of Environment, Madame Johanita Ndahimananjara.
The event could not have come at a more critical time. Poaching of Radiated Tortoises surged in 2015 and has seemingly continued unabated into 2016. The well-organized poaching rings, which can include corrupt officials and law enforcement, collect the tortoises for both internal bush meat consumption and the Asian pet trade. Although still numbering in the millions, at the current rate of poaching, the Radiated Tortoise could be extinct within 20 years and has already disappeared from approximately 65% of its historical range in southern Madagascar.
The TCC was envisioned as the lynchpin of TSA‚Äôs efforts in Madagascar to turn the tide against the poaching crisis. Prior to the opening of the TCC, the TSA operated four rescue centers in southern Madagascar, but the scope of the crisis and huge numbers of confiscated tortoises soon made it apparent that in addition, a larger, centralized, and more comprehensive center would be necessary. The TCC now encompasses nearly eight hectares of ‚Äúfairly intact‚Äù (many of the large trees have been removed) spiny forest habitat enclosed by a perimeter wall to keep out goats, zebu, and dogs. The Center has a steady supply of water, including a cistern and tower for storage and distribution‚Äîcritical in the arid South‚Äîas well as office and staff housing, restroom and shower facilities, limited solar power, and two gardens to grow fresh vegetation for the tortoises. However the completion of the perimeter fence and gates this year created the core of protected habitat for the tortoises that allows the Center to be officially operational. Other improvements in infrastructure are on the way and we will break ground this month on a tortoise food prep area. A new hospital/ quarantine facility is also in the final planning stages.
The TCC will serve as a central hub for the TSA‚Äôs Confiscation to Reintroduction Strategy, in which confiscated tortoises will be treated and returned to health, allowed to acclimate to ‚Äúnatural‚Äù forest conditions, and then reintroduced into secure community-protected habitats. Already, the TCC houses over 3,600 Radiated Tortoises, a number far exceeding what was originally envisioned.
Due to the growing effectiveness and reach of the TSA‚Äôs informant and enforcement network, the rate of poacher arrests and confiscations is rising and there is a continued flood of tortoise refugees into our five rescue centers. This demonstrates the need for the TCC and expanded tortoise conservation operations in Madagascar. This battle will ultimately be won or lost at the community level, and we must ramp up our outreach activities if we are to secure protected habitats in which to safely release tortoises.
The TSA wishes to thank The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust for the start up funds to get the TCC off the ground. The AZA Conservation Grant Fund helped support Year 2 construction, and the new tortoise hospital and quarantine facility is being supported by the British Chelonia Group. Utah‚Äôs Hogle Zoo has emerged as a strong partner in the development of the TCC and we can look forward to new facilities and staff positions in 2017 because of their support.