Photos & Text By Audra Barrios
Inside the dry spiny forest of Ifaty in southern Madagascar there is a sandy sanctuary that is home to over 1,000 tortoises. These are tortoises that were confiscated from poachers and smugglers, many in airports en route to Asia, where they were destined for the world's pet trade. Others were collected to be sold in the markets for food.
Confiscated tortoises are brought to the village to be rehabilitated before being released into monitored areas or placed into breeding projects (4). The Village des Tortues houses some of these breeding programs in enclosures that are built around the native spiny plants that provide shade to the animals. Wild lizards move freely in and out of these enclosures, also benefiting from the protected area built for tortoises.
Madagascar is home to four species of tortoises found nowhere else in the world.
Due to habitat loss and the demand for tortoises for food & the pet trade, all four species have been listed as critically endangered.
Extreme poverty affects sixty percent of the people of Madagascar. Scarcity of food has lead to massive deforestation as habitats are burnt to plant crops. Only 2% of the original spiny forest remains (3). At the end of 2016, the southern region of the island was on the edge of famine (1) so everything, including tortoises is food.
Tortoises were not always eaten, as most of the tribes within the Radiated Tortoise's range still consider it taboo to harm them. However, as people migrate, so do customs. It's thought that the majority of poaching is done by people that are not originally from the region (3).
Although the Radiated Tortoise native range is the southern part of the island, we found them as pets in gardens throughout the country. They are traditionally kept in pens with ducks and chickens as a means of warding off poultry diseases (2). Rabbits, birds, lemurs, chameleons and dogs are also commonly kept as pets throughout the island.
In one dusty hotel there was a tortoise walking down the narrow corridor between buildings. "Good morning tortoise," I said out loud to the radiated tortoise walking across the cement. A scream came from down the corridor. Looking out further I could see a large wire cage with fingers sticking out. I climbed out the window to get a better look - two lemurs were living in the cage.
Spiny Tailed Iguanas bask on tree trunks inside of tortoise enclosures. Chameleons watch us from above, moving from tree to tree. On the ground, underneath dry shrubs, there are slender skinks with red stripes on their necks called Elegant Mabuyas, Trachylepis elegans. They move through the leaf litter, occasionally stopping to wave their front legs around. Could it be to move the ground cover to scare out potential prey?
At the end of our walk through the tortoise village, there is a small nature center with posters on the wall showing other reptiles found on the property, including a photo the Madagascar Ground Gecko, Paroedura picta. I inquired with our guide, pointing to the photo. He laughed and said 'there is probably one in the office now. ' He shuffled a few things underneath a desk, and sure enough, there was one asleep in a basket!
There are a handful of dedicated people who are working hard to ensure the survival of tortoises. Without intervention, it was estimated that viable populations of Radiated Tortoises will be extinct in the wild within 45 years. (2) Their cousin up north is in even worse shape:
fewer than 100 Ploughshare Tortoises are left in the wild.
For this large species of tortoise (Geochelone yniphora), it's the global demand for these rare animals that is driving them to extinction. Hundreds (probably thousands) of Malagasy tortoises are seized every year en route to the worldwide pet trade- how many make it through without anyone knowing? Several years ago a shipment with hundreds of tortoises was stopped in an airport in Thailand. This illegal shipment contained 54 Ploughshare Tortoises. At the time, that would have been 10% of the entire species left on the planet (6). This continues daily.
Supporting conservation projects such as le Village des Tortues will ensure the survival of biodiversity. Over the next few months, I will introduce you to other conservation projects happening in Madagascar and ways we can help from home.
If you are already working with any species from Madagascar in captivity, especially threatened and endangered animals, you have the responsibility to try to establish assurance populations in captivity in case we loose them in the wild.
And, please do not purchase wild caught animals as pets as it can be extremely difficult to know where they actually came from.