“Tortoises make people smile” Dr. Christina Castellano explains. As part of the US conservation group, The Orianne Society, and a self-confessed tortoise nut, she has been studying them for the last 15 years. She’s hit the nail on the head; despite their wrinkled grumpy faces, tortoises take us to a happy place.
Perhaps it’s their unhurried and simple way of life; they graze, they sleep, they fornicate.
And if this all becomes a bit too much for them, they retreat into their shells and hide. I’d like to come back as a tortoise. If only their future didn’t look so grim.
I was off to Madagascar, Africa’s tortoise hot spot, to investigate the crises facing these unique reptiles. Scientists believe Madagascar’s tortoises are experiencing unparalleled declines; of the country’s five endemic species, all are critically endangered.
Populations of radiated tortoises have, for example, decreased by around fifty percent over the past ten years alone.
Habitat destruction is a growing threat to tortoise populations in Madagascar.
Several complex factors are contributing to this demise. Years of extreme drought have sucked the moisture from these once lush plains and Madagascar’s remaining forests are being systematically cleared for the charcoal and rice industries, and for cattle pasturage.
It is estimated that less than ten percent of its original forest, the tortoises’ natural habitat, remains. Pushed further afield in search of food, tortoises caught grazing on farmers’ crops are killed, often with an axe, or buried alive. And although protected under Malagasy law, their meat is increasingly offered as ‘the special’ in restaurants throughout the country.
But perhaps the greatest threat facing the species is an all too familiar one: poaching. Madagascar’s tortoises are being shipped by their shell loads to Asia, the hub of the exotic pet trade. Here, they are then re-exported to collectors around the world. Less fortunate tortoises’ are sold on markets, their body parts used to create aphrodisiacs.
Tortoise smuggling is huge business in Madagascar, and it is whispered that government officials are involved in the trade. The industry is controlled by a ‘Mr Big’, an Asian businessman based in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital city. His name is not widely circulated as he has a reputation for brutality.
“The tortoise smuggling industry is getting out of hand. It’s a hugely worrying situation,” Rick Hudson, President of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), who has a programme in Madagascar, told me. Rick proceeded to explain how armed poachers are invading villages and wiping them out of tortoises. One recent battle left a poacher, and the village king’s son, dead.
Given that most Malagasy live on less than $2 a day, the money involved is astronomical. A large ploughshare tortoise can fetch up to $40,000 on the black market. This demand has reduced their numbers to less than 600, rendering them the world’s rarest tortoise.
In order to maximize profits, poachers stuff the animals en masse into suitcases. Many suffocate to death in transit. There was, however, one shipment of 146 radiated tortoises that failed to make it to its final destination.
I arrived into multicultural Antananarivo, which belied its status as the world’s fourth dirtiest city, to meet up with Dr. Castellano and her colleague Rick Hudson of the TSA in Fort Worth, USA. ‘Tana’ is an effervescent and surprisingly elegant city that is nestled in the highlands of central Madagascar, surrounded by rolling rice-growing valleys. This was our meeting point before heading off into Madagascar’s remote southern villages and the epicenter of its tortoise trade.
On our way, we would be releasing the confiscated tortoises into the sacred – and wonderfully named - spiny forest. I was joined by my good friend, filmmaker Chris Scarffe who would be creating a community education video.
We picked up the tortoises from the TSA’s office in downtown Antananarivo. It was my first encounter with one since playing with a friend’s pet tortoise as a child. I remembered why tortoises, turtles and terrapins were all the rage at school.
Despite possessing one of nature’s greatest defense strategies, there’s something incredibly vulnerable about them. They can be picked up, prodded, played with and kicked: somehow, these animals need protecting.
After feeding and watering all 146 tortoises, we packed them into crates and headed to the airport to catch a flight to Fort Dauphine. From here we picked up our 4x4’s and began our unique mission into Madagascar’s spiny forest.
Madagascar is one of the most enigmatic countries on earth. At every turn lies endemic species; phallic octopus trees jut between stout baobabs, which cast unique shadows over the deep red earth. A bizarre array of spikey, flowering, obscurely shaped plants line villages packed full of life and colour.
A lemur and her baby.
Zebu, Madagascar’s deeply respected cattle, haul their gigantic frames through the heavy air, carrying supplies between villages.
It’s one wondrous scene after another.
“I just can’t get enough of this place. Even though I’m constantly leaving, something about Madagascar always stays with me”, said Rick, his light Texan drawl laden with whimsy.
Over the next few days we made our way over, across and through Madagascar’s spiny forest via the rustic road systems. We barely encountered another car on our way. Shaken but not stirred, we entered the village of Tsiombe, a hot spot for tortoise consumption.
We interviewed the head of the local police force. Tortoise shells littered a dump, just metres from his office. He claimed to be fighting a losing battle. What he required was funding for a vehicle to pursue the poachers. Whilst a lack of resources hinders the police, a vehicle wasn’t necessary to clean up a problem that also lay so close to home. Enforcing the law remains a major challenge here.
Dumped empty shells.
The next day, in an attempt to destroy evidence, piles of tortoise shells we had filmed were burned. “The sad thing is that the people eating tortoise have choices,” said Rick. “Alternative and sustainable cheap sources of food are available here. Yet soon there may not be any of these incredible animals left in the wild.”
From Tsiombe, we made the stunning drive to Lavanono, now one of my favourite places in Africa. Lavanono sits at the bottom of two major chevrons, formed as a result, scientists believe, of a major meteor strike around 5,000 years ago. They are convinced that the impact created what’s known as a mega-tsunami, rising over 200 metres high. The meteor left behind a devastating, yet breathtaking reminder of its impact.
We stayed at the ebullient Monsieur Gigi’s who had achieved the impossible and carved out a lodge befitting its surroundings. Each and every doorknob, chair and toilet paper dispenser had been meticulously crafted, chiseled and painted. Reintroduced indigenous plants and decorated whale vertebrae lined the immaculate pathways. The lodge is quite literally a work of art. In these most exquisite surroundings we weighed, fed and watered the tortoises in preparation for their big day.
Dragged reluctantly out of Monsieur Gigi’s, we drove to the tiny village of Ampotaka, where we would be bidding au revoir to our reptilian friends. The tortoises’ reintroduction was cause for wild celebration amongst the villagers, who greeted our arrival with a traditional dance.
Team tortoise unloaded the animals, packed them into tubs, and entered the spiny forest along with the villagers. Upon their release, the tortoises got down to some immediate grazing, blissfully unaware of their lucky escape.
Our satisfaction was short lived; we were told of a local man who was poaching radiated tortoises in large numbers. He was selling the animals, some over 50 years of age, to his mother and local market vendors. The price? Around US 75 cents each.
The poacher agreed to an interview in his back garden, amongst piles of shells. He was poor, he told us. If he had alternatives, he would consider them, but there are few opportunities to generate income here.
“People often ask me why we need to protect tortoises, or to quantify their importance to the planet. But to me this is a philosophical issue and a matter of ethics. We shouldn’t have to put a monetary value on a species’ life.”
Once again, Christina was right. Tortoises have survived everything thrown at them for over 200 million years. When the K-T boundary caused the extinction of dinosaurs around 65 million years ago, tortoises survived. Yet, due to us, their place on earth is now threatened.
We trekked solemnly back to Fort Dauphine, via Lavanono, which had, for the moment, lost its fairytale appeal. Over a dinner of zebu tongue, the team mulled over solutions.
Up to 10,000 species become extinct each year due to man. How could we stop Madagascar’s tortoises becoming another statistic?
The country is made up of 18 tribes – some eat tortoises, some don’t. To the later, consuming tortoises is a ‘fady’ or taboo. This fady has protected tortoises for centuries. Recent years, however, have seen an influx of tortoise eaters to the region.
“These people poach tortoises, eat them, and send their dried meat to other villages without anyone standing in their way, and often even with a little bit of help. It’s a clash of cultures; embracing the taboo and empowering people to take a stand against poachers by providing the support of a major law enforcement effort. This is what’s needed to help turn things around” said Dr. Castellano.
Incentivising locals to save tortoises is another solution the TSA are exploring. In recognition of one villages’ efforts to protect radiated tortoises, the TSA is funding the construction of a school. It’s hoped that news will spread of the project, prompting other communities to work together against the poachers.
As the Senagalese environmentalist Baba Dioum famously noted in 1968: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”
Perhaps, once the animals are understood; their endemism to Madagascar; their long lives and even longer past; their role in maintaining healthy ecosystems as seed disperses; only then can they be truly loved.
It is hoped that extensive public awareness campaigns will help spread the word: unless people change their behavior soon, these animals will go the way of Madagascar’s giant lemur and elephant bird.
Like many of the threats facing Africa’s wildlife; from shark finning to seal culling, the issue of tortoise poaching has no fast, or easy solutions. Their demise can be attributed to habit, ignorance and greed. Madagascar is still one of the poorest nations on earth; to some, survival takes precedence over preservation. To some, like the Vezo tribe, tortoises are - and will always be - on the menu.
It may not be too late for Madagascar’s tortoises. As we returned from our trip, some shocking news filtered through. Police had raided a poaching camp by Lavanono which contained around 2,000 dead tortoises. Six people had been arrested. Although the police possess scant resources to deal with poachers, this represents great progress. A desire exists to turn the situation around.
Populations of certain species of tortoise are still healthy enough for us save them.
It’s people who caused these problems; it’s people who can solve them.
Let’s hope that the efforts of locals, the police, and conservationists are successful; there aren’t many animals that make us smile like tortoises do.