Tortoises Approach Final Finish Line

April 6, 2010

Rampant poaching and a growing pet trade direct Madagascar's beautiful radiated tortoises toward extinction.

One of the most beautiful tortoise species may be heading for extinction. Radiated tortoises, with their yellow-and-black starburst shells, are being relentlessly hunted in southern Madagascar’s spiny forest.  

Biologists from WCS and the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) predict the killing of these reptiles for meat and the pet trade will drive radiated tortoises to extinction within 20 years.

“The rate of hunting of radiated tortoises is similar to the hunting pressure on American bison during the early 19th century, where they were nearly hunted to extinction when they once numbered in the tens of millions,” said Brian D. Horne, turtle conservation coordinator for WCS’s Species Program.

Conducting field surveys in southern Madagascar, the team of conservationists found entire regions empty of tortoises. The people living in the area gave clues to where these spiky-shelled reptiles went. They reported armed bands of poachers taking the tortoises away by the truckload to open meat markets in towns such as Beloha and Tsihombe.

Authorities have seized some trucks filled with the tortoises recently. They have also discovered poaching camps littered with the remains of thousands of these pretty animals. A longstanding drought and the resulting agricultural troubles have increased tortoise hunting for survival or economic purposes. Madagascar’s current political instability has also contributed to the tortoise losses, along with many other of the island nation’s natural resources.

Tortoise numbers closer to more populated areas have crashed significantly, and the conservationists predict the poachers will soon move to hunting protected areas, such as national parks and World Heritage Sites. Local staff are often not equipped to stop the poaching of this species, and any back-up enforcement can take days to reach the parks.

“Areas where scores of radiated tortoises could be seen just a few years ago have been poached clean,” said James Deutsch, director of WCS’s Africa Program. “Back then one could hardly fathom that this beautiful tortoise could ever become endangered, but such is the world we live in, and things can—and do—change rapidly.”

There once were millions of radiated tortoises in southern Madagascar. Now, the IUCN Red List (International Union for Conservation of Nature) ranks them as Critically Endangered. Community-based efforts that help sustain the tortoise’s habitat will be needed to save these unique and endangered species.

“Radiated tortoises are truly under siege now as never before, and if we can’t draw a line in the sand around protected areas, then we will lose this species” said Rick Hudson, president of the TSA. “I can’t think of a tortoise species that has undergone a more rapid rate of decline in modern times, or a more drastic contraction in range, than the radiated tortoise. This is a crisis situation of the highest magnitude.”

The WCS Bronx Zoo keeps about a dozen radiated tortoises at the Behler Chelonian Conservation Center and owns others that reside in other U.S. zoos. Many of these tortoises are Species Survival Program-recommended animals for breeding. These radiated tortoises represent a significant percentage of this species in the U.S.

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