Radio-tracking Radiated Tortoises - Travel Blog Vol. 3

April 2, 2022

By Brett Bartek

After returning from Lavanono we spent three more days at the tortoise release site. With all of the hard work complete, we were left with the fun work of simply trying to locate all of our transmittered tortoises one last time before the TSA staff whom we trained return to relocate them in two weeks. Three days was plenty of time for us to do our job at a casual pace and finally slow down a little and really take in this wild place that is southern Madagascar.

Brett and Lance tracked the transmittered tortoises one last time before departing the release site.

Lance and I have pretty much been working nonstop since we were cleared from Covid-19 quarantine following our arrival in the country. The only rest we've really gotten has been during our mid-day siestas when we try to wait out the heat, or on travel days where we blast through the desert like we're in the Baja 1000 motorsport race. Either way, it was nice to take our time and really take in the beauty of the spiny forest.

An orchid native to the spiny forest of southern Madagascar in full bloom.

We've given the spiny forest a lot of grief thus far, but it truly is a special place. Many of the plant and animal species here are endemic to this region, and not all of the plants are as terrible as we've portrayed them to be. Now, as the rainy season comes to an end, most are actually quite stunning when in bloom. Living and working in the swamps of South Florida I have become quite smitten with the many orchids native to or found in my area, and I was quite surprised to find two species blooming in full glory here in Madagascar's arid South.

Spiny Chameleons were found in abundance during nocturnal explorations of the spiny forest.

In continuing to take in the unique beauty and diversity of this place, Lance and I took the time to do a night hike through the forest. There, we found an abundance of Carpet (Furcifer lateralis) and Spiny (Furcifer verrucosus) chameleons, more Reddish-gray Mouse Lemurs (Microcebus griseorufus) than we could count, but the highlight of the evening was a single frog, a Brown Rain Frog (Scaphyophryne brevis), which is always a treat in a desert. We finished our hike admiring the hazy band of light of the Milky Way, a nightly routine, which is brighter and clearer here than I could have ever imagined.

A small Brown Rain Frog was a welcome sight in a landscape that for most of the year is excessively dry.

The following morning, we finished up our work at the tortoise release site, a place we had called home for two weeks, with people whom we had quickly created bonds, loaded up the truck and made our way back to the Tortoise Conservation Center (TCC). The TCC would be our base camp for the next week while we bounced around surveying and mapping with the drone a few other potential release sites. In a few days we will finish our work here and be one step closer to rejoining the real world. I haven't yet decided if that makes me happy or upset, but I'll be sure to let you know when I make up my mind.

The Milky Way is a magnificent sight to see in remote areas of Madagascar.

April 2, 2022

By Lance Paden

I'm confident I would have screamed out in pain much louder and for far longer than the barefoot Malagasy 2-year-old that I saw step squarely on a prickly-pear cactus pad one afternoon. I also doubt I'll soon forget the look of horror and instant regret on his face as he realized why everyone was yelling at him to watch his step (I assume) just a couple seconds earlier. No big deal though, his older brother quickly pulled out a couple spines that were lodged deep in his foot and had him back on his feet in no time at all. My short time here has taught me that the Malagasy people of the Androy Region are as tough as they come‚ they have to be.

Lance (left) and Brett had to say goodbye to the community members, including these children, with whom they had lived amongst for two weeks.

The TCC staff who accompanied us to the release site now know their way around the telemetry equipment we brought along and are navigating from tortoise to tortoise through the spiny forest and nearby fields of cultivated cactus at an impressive rate! The local community-appointed guides (who always accompany us into the forest) also made sure to recommend the best paths to take when available, which was much appreciated by everyone.

Like many seasoned field biologists, I've radio-tracked animals in quite a few harsh environments so I can certainly appreciate anyone that can hold their own tracking through Madagascar's spiny forest in shorts and flip-flops. One of my favorite things about working and tracking with the local community guides was that there was always time to stop and snack on 50 or so cactus fruit when the heat of the day began to bear down upon us. The fruit has definitely grown on me‚ I don't think I can say the same for Brett though.

Locating a wild Spider Tortoise was a goal for Lance. Goal accomplished!

After several successful days radio-tracking all the tortoises we switched gears and returned to the TCC. Back at the TCC, I made it a personal goal while wandering the grounds between other tasks to find at least one wild Spider Tortoise (Pyxis arachnoides). So, I was beyond stoked to finally find a juvenile earlier this week! Aside from this memorable finding, and even at this point in our trip, it's still hard for me to get over seeing so many chameleons and wild Radiated Tortoises going about their days here‚ it is such a cool place.

Brett and Tantely do their best to provide extra shade for wild Radiated Tortoises that frequent the lighthouse compound...or something like that.

Another highlight of the last several days was visiting Cap Sainte Marie, the southernmost point of Madagascar and the location of the Cap Sainte-Marie Special Reserve, likely the most densely inhabited area for Radiated Tortoises throughout their range. The habitat there is quite unlike anywhere else I've been. Situated atop tall, steep, sea bluffs, Cap Sainte Marie is subject to very strong coastal winds that stunts to diminutive proportions the vegetation growing there. Yet, this rocky scrubland is favored by the tortoises there.

Lance and a wild Radiated Tortoise soak up the sun together amongst the stunted vegetation of the Cap Sainte Marie landscape.

We were fortunate enough to get a tour of the famous cape lighthouse which is completely solar-powered, but visible to ships at sea up to 50 km (31 mi) away. A fittingly appropriate feature of this lighthouse was ever-changing groups of wild Radiated Tortoises wandering into the lighthouse compound to enjoy sheltering in the shade of the lighthouse's base and beneath its solar panels.

Wild Radiated Tortoises enjoy the shade of the Cap Sainte Marie lighthouse's solar panel.

Stay tuned for Radio-tracking Radiated Tortoises - Travel Blog Vol. 4!