Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter, 2000, 5:18-19
© 2000 by Chelonian Research Foundation

Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter

Madagascar Tortoise Crisis
Letter To CITES Animal Committee and Concerned Parties,
9 January 2002

John Behler
Co-chair, IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group
Wildlife Conservation Society, 185th St. and Southern Blvd., Bronx, NY 10460 USA

At the close of 2001, the four endemic tortoises of Madagascar continue to be victimized by smugglers, the exotic pet trade, rampant habitat alteration and fragmentation, and unbridled collection for food. During my late November-early December 2001 trip to southern Madagascar, my party and I discovered new threats to radiated (Geochelone radiata) and spider tortoises (Pyxis arachnoides), which further cloud the picture and forecast dire straits for remaining chelonian stocks. Neither CITES and its signatories and their collective wildlife regulations, nor the Malagasy agency charged with tortoise protection and the enforcement of that country’s wildlife laws, nor local fady (taboos) have significantly been able to reduce the traffic.

The following summarizes Dr. Herilala Randriamahazo’s and my observations during our recent visit to southern Madagascar.

29 November. Beheloka. A 75 km west-east dirt road beginning ~8 km south of Ambatry from Highway 10 to the coastal village of Beheloka was traversed by 4x4 vehicle during late afternoon at the peak of the tortoise activity. In 1990 this area supported a robust tortoise population and 37 radiated tortoises, of all age classes, were observed and photographed during a similar drive across this road. No tortoises were observed in a 1999 survey along the same route under optimal afternoon observation conditions. Our Nov. 2001 trip was equally unproductive. Three sets of tracks were observed and no live tortoises were seen. Of additional note, extensive areas of forest had recently been cleared for agricultural purposes and little tortoise habitat remains.

30 November. Beheloka. The dunes immediately south of the fishing village supported large populations of both spider and radiated tortoises in 1990.

In 1999 Bill Holmstrom, WCS Herpetology Collection Manager, and I found that radiated tortoises had been extirpated here and the spider tortoise population had been significantly reduced in number. Today the landscape is a badly degraded grazing land (goats) and large areas have been cleared for tombs. Tortoise bones and shells remain as remnants of former days.

30 November. Tsimanampetsotsa National Park. We visited ANGAP staff in Efoetse and hiked with them into good tortoise habitat east of the lake. During former times this site supported a remarkably large radiated tortoise population (pers. com. Q. Bloxam). The population has been plundered in recent years by collectors from Tulear who harvested the tortoises for holiday feasts. No tortoises (one set of tracks) were observed during the one-hour hike. This observation is consistent with those made by Thomas Leuteritz (George Mason University Ph.D. scholar) in 1999.

ANGAP staff informed us that seven large pirogues (each capable of holding 500 tortoises) had arrived from Tulear on 1 November 2001 to collect tortoises for the upcoming holiday feasts. They complained that they have no authority to stop these “dangerous men.” That authority rests with Eaux et Forets.

30 November. “Killing fields of Anandriana.” During late afternoon and optimal conditions for observing tortoises, we visited an area several kilometers south of Androka and the Linta River (GPS/WGS 84 = 0416280, 7236092) to check on the subspecific status of the resident spider tortoise and the health of the local radiated tortoise population. The site has generally been considered to be beyond the zone of collection for food and the radiated tortoise population was believed to be one of the highest densities.

What we discovered was a degraded landscape that was littered with the skeletons of hundreds (very likely many thousands) of radiated and spider tortoises. The tortoises appeared to have been killed in their tracks. The shells of all age classes (from ~4 years old to ancient adults) were seen. Over the course of one hour (1550-1650 hr.), and along a narrow transect (~50 m wide, <1 km long), we recorded 39 dead radiated tortoises (11 juv., 28 adults) and 20 living radiated tortoises (16 juv., 3 sub -adults, 1 young adult). We also saw 1 dead and 3 living spider tortoises. Adults had a large hole punched through their plastra, while juveniles had the top of their carapaces crushed.

Dr. Randriamahazo surrounded by dead turtles at Anandriana.

These observations were especially disturbing as it is the first report of harvest of virtually all age classes and the first observation of killing of spider tortoises. The killing appears to have taken place within a span of six months with the most recent events occurring within the month as dried flesh remained on some of the shells. Equally disturbing is that the tortoises appeared to just have been killed where they were encountered.

Subsequently we learned from scattered sources that a group of Asians (speculated to be the same as those involved in the sapphire smuggling business) were killing the tortoises for their livers which were made into pate’ and smuggled to Japan.

We were informed that the men had been in Tulear several weeks prior to our visit.

2 December. Lavanono. We overnighted at Sorona hotel (built in 1997 by villagers; now a non-profit organization to help the economy of this remote coastal village through eco-tourism). An interview with the hotel staff revealed that they had sent a letter last June, signed by the community, to the government asking that they stop the collection of tortoises on their lands.

They said that the 4x4 vehicles came from Ft. Dauphin and belonged to members of Parliament. On 1 October, Rajaonimanana, from Eaux et Forets, supposedly responsible for CITES data (the hotel had his business card and hotel registration) visited Lavanono and heard the community complaints.

The community said nothing had been done and the vehicles returned and recent collection had taken place. This village, as all others, is not empowered to stop any trafficking in wildlife.

Flat-tailed Tortoises. While in Antananarivo, and prior to our southern Madagascar travels, I’d heard (pers. com. J. Durbin) that the flat-tailed tortoise (Pyxis planicauda) collection had resumed in the Kirindy area. As previously reported at an Animal Committee meeting, the collection of this species has exceeded the CITES quotas. This was verified by USFWS. At the CBSG/CAMP meeting in Madagascar last May, the status of this species was evaluated and judged to be critically endangered. This tortoise is a dry deciduous forest species that is sympatric with the giant jumping rat. This vanishing species was fully evaluated through a PHVA and the results predicted an extinction time of <30 years. The forest habitat is disappearing at 4-5% per annum. Ignoring all other factors, that statistic in and of itself provides a snapshot of the bleak future these species face. Further collection of this species of flat-tailed tortoises must stop. Arguments that animal dealers in Madagascar will play a role in this species’ conservation have no biological foundation.

The CAMP evaluation by Malagasy and expatriate reviewers was clear on this subject.

Plowshare Tortoise. Shortly after my return to the United States from Madagascar, I received a communication from a ranking IUCN/TFTSG member that a Malagasy dealer and two Germans were involved in a plan to illegally export wild-caught plowshare tortoises (Geochelone yniphora) to the United States.

Those involved claimed to have bought the responsible Minister and timed the event to take place before the presidential elections last month. From subsequent messages that I’ve received, I understand that the names of the individuals involved are known to Malagasy, German, and USA wildlife authorities.

In closing, I want to reiterate that all Madagascar tortoises face a very serious set of problems. There is no internal effort to monitor the trade and only the most blatant and exposed smuggling episodes are prosecuted. Confiscated animals are quickly given to dealers. The tortoise trade in Madagascar has been facilitated by the highest government officials in the country. I implore CITES to be very thorough in its review of the Madagascar reptile and amphibian trade in 2002.