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2 Madagascar Tortoise Species Pushed to the Brink of Extinction

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2 Madagascar Tortoise Species Pushed to the Brink of Extinction

The outlook just got a whole lot bleaker for two critically endangered tortoise species from Madagascar: the ploughshare and radiated tortoise. The Wildlife Conservation Society recently released a statement announcing that over 1,000 tortoises have been confiscated from poachers in the first trimester of 2013; some 54 ploughshare tortoises were intercepted in Thailand, where it is the most commonly available tortoise in Bangkok’s famous Chatuchak wildlife market.

The radiated tortoise, whose black or dark brown shell is peppered with vivid yellow or orange star-like patterns, is one of Madagascar’s most iconic species; growing up to 16 inches in length, it can live for around 100 years. The ploughshare tortoise, meanwhile, which can grow up to 19 inches and whose lifespan ranges from 50 to 100 years, was once extremely common in Madagascar. Unfortunately, numbers of both species have dropped considerably since 2008, to the point that the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUC) estimates that are only 400 ploughshare tortoises left in the wild. The value of these species to their local ecosystems cannot be overstated. As a recent World Wildlife Fund letter states, "Losing these fascinating creatures, who have survived for millions of years, just for the profits of a handful of traders would be an irremediable disaster for conservation in Madagascar and embarrassing, even shameful for the Malagasy people as a whole, starting with its leaders."

Greed and Insatiable Appetites

Tortoises are poached both for use as a pet and as a culinary delicacy. Sadly, the problem has been exacerbated in recent years by the political crisis that hit Madagascar in 2009, causing a downward spiral in the economy, as well as a weakening of good government and rule of law. When we consider that the number of ploughshare tortoises confiscated in Thailand represents a surprising 13.5% of the total number in existence, the need for urgent action is more than evident.

Hope on the Horizon: The Radiated Tortoise Project

The Radiated Tortoise Project (RTP) is one of this tortoise’s last hopes. Part of the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership, the RTP’s aim is to conserve this emblematic species through a marriage of community outreach and conservation education programmes. The project was set up in Lavavolo, an ideal choice considering that its people stay true to the local fady (taboo) against consuming or harming the tortoises. The biggest threats to the tortoise in this area include the charcoal production industry, the clearing of the land for agricultural purposes, and invasive species of flora. Thus far, RTP has completed various tasks, including conducting a habitat evaluation and restoration plan, assessing the radiated tortoise diet in natural vs. impacted habitats, developing a community education programme and much more. These efforts have been made possible by a donation made by the Turtle Survival Alliance. To learn how you can support the important work carried out by this organisation, click here. As far as ploughshare tortoises go, despite a recovery programme commenced in 1986 by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the population continues to founder. In 2008, the establishment of the Recovery Plan Workshop for the Ploughshare Tortoise saw the confiscation of 10 tortoises from poachers in Hong Kong and the establishment of a new population through dedicated breeding programmes in the U.S. (at the Turtle Conservancy - Behler Chelonian Centre). Only recently, eight more ploughshare tortoises arrived at Zoo Atlanta and the Knoxville Zoo, where they will form part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP). Sadly, within Madagascar itself, the combination of environmental degradation and illegal trading is still a big hurdle to be overcome.

What Can I Do To Help?

As is the case with most species in danger of extinction, there are two ways to help: one is through donations to conservation organisations and the other is by taking part in a volunteer programme in Madagascar, where you can obtain hands-on experience and education in saving the tortoises and various other species on the brink of extinction. Do a bit of research and compare what various organisations have to offer. These organisations differ in everything from where they work to the length of their volunteer programmes, the nature of the training involved (some expeditions will require you to learn to scuba dive, or study a bit of science). Costs are usually reasonable, though most organisations expect you to sort your own travel insurance, vaccinations, personal field equipment, etc. Most volunteers report feeling a sense of having made a genuine, valuable contribution to a cause that needs constant support. If these beautiful tortoises stand a chance of being the great and formidable species they once were, we all need to do our share to make what is just a dream, reality.

<image source: Kyle Bedell>