Toliara, Madagascar - On Tuesday, April 10, more than 10,000 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 are being dispatched with medical supplies and will 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 or who is responsible, 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 five-member team from the Turtle Survival Alliance’s (TSA) Madagascar staff, who have been working 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 will receive 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.”
Given the scale of the rescue efforts, TSA expects to send additional teams of veterinary experts from the United States to Madagascar over the coming weeks and months. Participating organizations accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) include Abilene Zoo, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Dallas Zoo, Dickerson Park Zoo, Georgia Aquarium, Fort Worth Zoo, New England Aquarium, Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, San Diego Zoo Global, Shedd Aquarium, Tennessee Aquarium, Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center, Tulsa Zoo, Utah's Hogle Zoo, Wildlife Conservation Society, Zoo Knoxville and Zoo Atlanta. In addition to these AZA-accredited organizations, the TSA’s efforts are being supported by global conservation partners Aktionsgemeinschaft Artenschutz (AGA) e. V., Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, ProWildlife v. E., SOPTOM-Village Des Tortues, Tanganyika Wildlife Park and the Turtle & Tortoise Preservation Group, plus a growing number of private donors.
“The support we continue to receive from the global conservation community has been incredible, and we are extremely thankful for the multitude of individuals and organizations that have come forward with donations and supplies,” said Hudson. “Yet, the long-term financial impact to our Madagascar program is potentially crippling.”
About the Turtle Survival Alliance
The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) is an internationally recognized action-oriented global partnership, focusing on species that are at high risk of extinction, and working in turtle diversity hotspots around the world. The group was originally organized in 2001, in response to the rampant and unsustainable harvest of Asian turtle populations to supply Chinese markets, referred to as the Asian Turtle Crisis. Since then, TSA has evolved to respond to other endangered turtle species around the world, with current projects or programs in Belize, Colombia, Europe and Madagascar, and throughout Asia. Today the TSA supports projects or programs—both wild and captive—that benefit 21 of the world’s 25 most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles. For more details on TSA’s programs, visit https://turtlesurvival.org or follow the organization on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @TurtleSurvival.
About San Diego Zoo Global
Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes on-site wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.