From all over the Androy Region of southern Madagascar, they came: politicians, local officials, teachers, and of course the children - over 1000 of them. All wanted to be there to participate in the dedication ceremony for the region‚Äôs newest primary school, recently constructed with support from the Turtle Survival Alliance. What began with a simple idea in March 2010 - ‚Äúhow can we reward the village of Antsakoamasy for doing such an incredible job of protecting their tortoise population?‚Äù - has produced a new school and transformed this sleepy little village on the outskirts of the Cap St Marie Special Reserve into a model for community involvement in tortoise conservation.
Cap St Marie (CSM) supports what is arguably the most important population of Radiated Tortoises in Madagascar, and as poachers move closer and closer to CSM, it is important that we shore up the flanks of the Reserve in order to provide an effective barrier to intruders. With strong protective traditions already in place at Antsakoamasy, it just made sense to make this the model in the region for highlighting the benefits of having robust tortoise populations in your community. So, after five months of planning and construction, on March 19, a huge crowd gathered to dance and celebrate, eat and drink, and cut the ribbon on their new school.
There are early indications are that our instincts were right, and that this project is likely to exceed our expectations in terms of impact. During the dedication ceremony and zebu festival that followed, local political leaders reflected on the significance of the new school. The Chef de Region Androy described the disgraceful and unacceptable situation of seeing so many Sokake (local name for Radiated Tortoise) killed in their Tandroy homeland, and said ‚ÄúI dance today because you managed to establish a fruitful partnership for the protection of the Sokake and by doing so you were able to receive a school for your children.‚Äù
The Regional Director of National Education (RDEN) said that the event "marks a special occasion for us in Androy because a conservation organization (TSA) managed to bring us together here to refresh our memory about the culture linked to the taboo (against harming tortoises), the preservation of our rich biodiversity (represented by the Sokake), and the school as a strong basis for the future of our children ‚Äì all three in one, we have never seen that before. I did not expect that tortoise conservation would construct a school." He went on to commit to hiring the current teacher at Antsakoamasy as a permanent government employee, and promised to request an additional teacher next year.
However, not too far away, poachers continue to harvest tortoises and the battle to save the Sokake intensifies. In October 2011, in the village of Tragnavaho, a poaching camp was raided and 60 people rounded up, with the remains of 1,982 slaughtered adult tortoises in the carnage. Tragnavaho lies between Beloha (a major tortoise eating center) and Cap St Marie, a foreboding indication of how close to the Reserve poachers are operating. The majority of poachers are coming from Fotadrevo in the north, an area that saw its tortoises disappear years ago.
To illustrate the impact of the current level of poaching, consider this: the range of the Radiated Tortoise has contracted by an estimated 64% in the past 150 years. However, the numbers have decreased by roughly 50% in the past 15 years, from an estimated 12 million tortoises in the late 1990s, to around 6 million today. Sounds like a lot of tortoises, right? Well, when one considers the RATE of decline (the reason the tortoise was elevated to Critically Endangered status on the IUCN Red List) you begin to feel the sense of urgency. Consider Passenger Pigeons and the American Buffalo.
Due to a lack of enforcement capacity for protecting tortoises in Madagascar, it is inevitable that we will continue to lose tortoises from large portions of their range. The pressures are simply too great. But I am confident that we will be successful in turning the tide against poaching in some areas, and that we will accomplish that one community at a time. We believe that Antsakoamasy will become the model for a broader community-based tortoise protection strategy throughout the region. And what better long-term strategy than to link children with tortoises by providing a better education?
The response of the TSA membership to appeals for support for this project has been remarkable, and this program is building a strong base of support. We wish to thank the Knoxville Zoo for their fund-raising efforts that brought in $3,200 for school furniture, and to Bob Blome for donating school supplies and a huge world map. Special thanks also to Bob Krause, Beverly Abele, Jim and Marie Vina, Valerie Doyle, Stephen Hall, Elizabeth Wasserman, Bob Blome, David Shapiro, Colette Adams and all of the other donors that made this campaign such a success. Your generosity has made a meaningful impact in the lives of the children of Antsakoamasy and for radiated tortoise conservation.