Zoo Knoxville and Turtle Survival Alliance Awarded $50,000 Grant To Return Rescued Tortoises To The Wild In Madagascar

rhudson@fortworthzoo.org /817.343.7380

Knoxville, Tenn. (March 3, 2020) – Zoo Knoxville and the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) have been awarded a $50,000 grant to support the return of 1,000 critically endangered Radiated Tortoises (Astrochelys radiata) rescued from illegal wildlife trafficking operations to the wild in Madagascar. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is funding priority conservation projects through the newly established SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction® granting program. The reintroduction program for Radiated Tortoise was one of five programs chosen for funding.

The process to return these tortoises to the wild is an involved one. After appropriate release sites are determined, expansive “soft-release” enclosures are built into the native spiny forest habitat to contain the tortoises there. This proven technique re-acclimates the tortoises to the wild and establishes new home-ranges. Without proper acclimation and home-range establishment, the tortoises could die or be recaptured by poachers as they attempt a return to their area of origin.

After a period of one year, the walls of the soft-release pens are removed, allowing the tortoises to naturally disperse into the surrounding habitat. To track their movements and locations of adopted residency, radio transmitters are affixed to the tortoises’ shells, providing important information as to the efficacy of their re-wilding. Concurrently, under the coordination of TSA’s comprehensive “Confiscation to Reintroduction Strategy,” TSA-Madagascar staff will work with residents of local communities, who consider the tortoises sacred, to protect them from poachers.

The tortoises selected for this year’s inaugural release of the Strategy are a fraction of the many thousands of confiscated tortoises being held by the TSA at their conservation centers in Madagascar. Illegal trafficking, fueled by demand in Asia where they are used in traditional medicine or as pets, and in their native Madagascar as a culinary delicacy for the more affluent classes, is wiping out entire generations of tortoises. This eradication of wild populations is compounded by the animal’s natural history. Tortoises have long life expectancies and are slow to mature to reproductive age. The rate of poaching observed in Madagascar far exceeds their reproductive output and ability to rebound. It’s estimated that the wild population of Radiated Tortoises has declined by at least 75%. Within the next 20 years, the Radiated Tortoise, as well as nearly one-third of the world‘s 357 species of tortoises and turtles may be gone from the wild due to poaching for the international black market.

Zoo Knoxville and the Turtle Survival Alliance work in partnership to release tortoises confiscated from illegal trafficking back into the wild. The Turtle Survival Alliance provides safe holding facilities to care for confiscated tortoises in Madagascar and advocates for local communities to be protectors of their native wildlife. Zoo Knoxville’s herpetologists are recognized globally as experts in the care and breeding of Radiated Tortoises and the team travels to Madagascar to share their expertise and assist in times of crisis. Zoo Knoxville also supports local advocacy efforts in Madagascar by providing donations and supplies for local schools.

Zoo Knoxville is one of the top zoos in the world for the breeding and husbandry of Radiated Tortoises and works as part of a collaborative Species Survival Plan to maintain a healthy population in human care with zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Zoo Knoxville is also a founding member of the Radiated Tortoise SAFE program, which supports conservation efforts to restore populations of confiscated tortoises in Madagascar.

“Zoo Knoxville is known internationally for our expertise with Radiated Tortoises, and the funding provided by the AZA SAFE grant will allow us to use that expertise to restore and protect wild populations in Madagascar. Zoo Knoxville, in partnership with other zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), is working as part of the largest conservation movement on the planet to respond to the global crisis being caused by illegal trafficking of wildlife,” said Zoo Knoxville President and CEO Lisa New. “Modern zoos are playing a critical role in using our expertise in animal care to support boots on the ground.”

"The AZA SAFE grant will allow us to take the next big step in our Confiscation to Reintroduction Strategy for Radiated Tortoises in Madagascar. We have identified the sites, engaged the communities, and have 1,000 tortoises soon to be cleared for release. Now we have the funds to properly monitor them post-release. Reintroduction is an intensive process, and with 25,000 tortoises in our captive centers, it is imperative that we develop a model for transitioning them back into the wild to restore depleted populations," said Rick Hudson, President, Turtle Survival Alliance.

Wildlife trafficking is ranked as the fourth most profitable transnational crime, behind the drug trade, arms trade, and human trafficking. It is estimated to generate billions of dollars each year for dangerous international networks. Zoo Knoxville is a member of the Wildlife Trafficking Alliance, a coalition of corporate and non-profit organizations working together to combat wildlife trafficking by raising public awareness, reducing consumer demand for illegal wildlife and wildlife products, and mobilizing companies in a variety of sectors to adopt best practices to stop wildlife trafficking. Learn more about what can be done to take stop illegal trafficking and to support legislation to protect wildlife at https://wildlifetraffickingalliance.org/

About Zoo Knoxville
Zoo Knoxville is a nonprofit entity situated on 53 wooded acres just east of downtown Knoxville. Zoo Knoxville features exhibits of wild animals in natural habitats and is world renowned for its efforts in conservation and species survival. Zoo Knoxville is nationally accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and is committed to the highest standards in animal care and well-being, ethics, conservation, and education. Knoxville’s largest attraction, the zoo is open every day except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The zoo is open from 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. through March 1. The zoo is currently open from 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Admission and ticket sales stop one-hour before the zoo closes. For more information visit zooknoxville.org.

About Turtle Survival Alliance
Turtle Survival Alliance is a non-profit corporation with 501(c)(3) status. Since its formation in 2001, TSA has become recognized as a global force for turtle conservation, capable of taking swift and decisive action on behalf of critically endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles. With its commitment to “zero turtle extinctions,” TSA transforms passion for turtles into effective conservation action through: (1) restoring populations in the wild where possible; (2) securing endangered species in captivity through assurance colonies; and (3) building the capacity to restore, secure, and conserve species within their range countries. In addition to the Turtle Survival Center in South Carolina, TSA manages collaborative turtle conservation programs in 15 diversity hotspots around the world. For more information, visit: www.turtlesurvival.org; http://www.facebook.com/turtlesurvival; www.instagram.com/turtlesurvival; @turtlesurvival on Twitter.