Above: radiated tortoises enjoy water and fresh air after being rescued.
On Tuesday, April 10, 2018, nearly 11,000 critically endangered radiated tortoises (Astrochelys radiata) were discovered by local police in a non-descript private residence in Toliara, Madagascar. The floors of virtually every room in the house were covered with tortoises that had no access to food or water. As of Friday, April 13, hundreds had died from dehydration and illness. Experts from San Diego Zoo Global were dispatched with medical supplies to administer medical care for the sick or injured tortoises, and general animal care.
It is not known how long the tortoises were in the home, but the local police in partnership with Directeur Regional de l’Environment de ‘Ecologie et des Forets (DREEF), the conservation law enforcement authorities in Madagascar, continue their investigation. It is believed that the tortoises were collected for the illegal pet trade, possibly for shipment to Asia, where the tortoises’ highly domed shell featuring a brilliant star pattern makes them highly prized. It is estimated that radiated tortoise populations in the wild have declined more than 80 percent in the last 30 years. At this rate of decline, it is estimated that the radiated tortoise could be functionally extinct in the wild in less than two decades.
Currently, triage efforts are being led by a team from the Turtle Survival Alliance’s (TSA) Madagascar staff, who worked nonstop to relocate the surviving tortoises 18 miles north at SOPTOM-Villages des Tortues, a 17-acre private wildlife facility in Ifaty. While there, each tortoise receives initial in-processing, health evaluations, hydration, and triage.
“I don’t think the word ‘overwhelming’ comes close to describing what the Turtle Survival Alliance is dealing with here,” said Rick Hudson, president of the Turtle Survival Alliance. “We were already caring for 8,000 tortoises in Madagascar—now that number has more than doubled overnight.”
To assist in this emergency situation, the TSA has led efforts to mobilize conservation organizations around the world to commit staff, donate supplies or donate monetary support.
“Unfortunately we have had a number of situations in recent years where our staff has been called upon to assist animals that have been caught up in wildlife trafficking,” said Kim Lovich, curator of reptiles, San Diego Zoo. “This is an overwhelming situation, where we recognize that every individual we save may make the difference between this species’ long-term survival and its extinction. We have to help.”
The road is long, but it is paved with hope. We will not stop fighting against illegal wildlife trafficking.