Every so often, police officers across the world encounter situations that are bizarre beyond words. The Madagascan authorities can certainly relate to that after they raided a house on the evening of April 10, 2018. There to investigate a foul smell, the officers discovered thousands of creatures carpeting the floors.
Toliara is a vibrant town in Madagascar, home to around 150,000 people. Located on the southwestern coast of the African island, the town is known for its university and museums. Visitors are also attracted by Toliara’s famous beach and beautiful gardens, while many migrant workers have been drawn in by the promise of employment at the town’s busy port.
The island of Madagascar is home to a wide variety of wildlife, which in turn makes it a popular tourist destination. However, despite its enviably distinctive environment, the nation has been beset with problems for close to 60 years. After obtaining independence in 1960 from France, Madagascar has since faced severe political unrest, including coups and outbreaks of violence.
With all that in mind, the local authorities might not have been especially concerned when they were called to investigate a house in Toliara in April 2018. A foul, rancid smell was reportedly emanating from the two-story building, and the police weren’t alone in searching for the cause. They were joined by officials including Soary Randrianjafizanaka, the local environmental agency chief.
However, few could have predicted what they’d eventually find inside the house. As the authorities entered the building, they discovered thousands of tortoises carpeting the floors of every room. The horrible smell came from the urine and feces produced by the reptiles, leaving Randrianjafizanaka and her colleagues shocked.
“You cannot imagine,” Randrianjafizanaka told National Geographic in April 2018. “It was so awful. They had tortoises in the bathroom, in the kitchen, everywhere in the house.” And to add another twist to what was already a bizarre situation, upon closer inspection the tortoises’ species was identified.
Incredibly, the house contained close to 11,000 radiated tortoises, which are a critically endangered species native to Madagascar. The reptiles were subsequently seized by the authorities. And due to the sheer number of reptiles, it took a number of trips by six trucks to transport all of the creatures to a private reserve in nearby Ifaty.
Unfortunately, however, close to 200 radiated tortoises were found dead in the house. But at the Ifaty facility, known as Les Villages des Tortues, the survivors were given health evaluations and treated for dehydration. And the whole rescue operation was assisted by the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), an American-based group.
Radiated tortoises continue to be hunted by poachers – despite a treaty prohibiting their commercial trade being signed by more than 180 countries as well as the European Union. Coveted for the beautiful star patterns adorning their shells, the endangered reptiles are either smuggled out to collectors in Asia or sold as bushmeat to the local population.
The radiated tortoise population now stands at an estimated three million, with the TSA suggesting that during the past three decades the species’ numbers have dropped by over three-quarters. With that in mind, it’s believed that the species could become extinct in under 20 years. “They’re being harvested at what I’d call an alarming, catastrophic rate,” the TSA president Rick Hudson told National Geographic.
Despite the best efforts of all involved at Les Villages des Tortues, though, more than 500 of the seized tortoises died from infection or dehydration within a week of their arrival at the reserve. But while most of the reptiles are recovering well from their ordeal, Hudson admitted that the TSA’s resources were incredibly stretched after this incident in Toliara.
“I don’t think the word overwhelming comes close to describing what the Turtle Survival Alliance is dealing with here,” Hudson stated in a TSA press release in April 2018. “We were already caring for 8,000 tortoises in Madagascar. Now that number has more than doubled overnight. We are in ‘an all hands on deck’ mentality right now.”
Hudson made it clear, however, that they were prepared to face such a situation. “Fortunately, due to our strong relationship with the zoo community, the TSA is well positioned to respond to crises such as this,” he continued. But while he praised the efforts of the group’s supporters, the president also revealed a possible downside.
“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,” Hudson added. “Yet, the long-term financial impacts to our Madagascar program is potentially crippling.”
Meanwhile, the president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Dan Ashe, also offered some input. “The immediate response of more than 20 AZA-accredited facilities, offering their expertise and assistance to care for thousands of tortoises in Madagascar, is proof we will take whatever action is necessary to address illegal wildlife trade and other threats that put the world’s most vulnerable species at risk of extinction,” Ashe stated in a TSA press release.
“Through programs like SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction and the U.S. Wildlife Trafficking Alliance, AZA and its members are engaging in critical, coordinated, and needed conservation work,” the press release continued.
The Madagascan authorities subsequently arrested three people in relation with this incident, including the owner of the house. Officials reportedly also have several other leads, while Randrianjafizanaka claimed that two of the suspects had been burying dead tortoises when the team raided the building. “We don’t know exactly who the big person is, but we know there’s a big boss,” she told National Geographic.
As for the surviving radiated tortoises, Jordan Gray, the communications and outreach coordinator for the TSA, believes that they won’t be placed straight back into the wild. With all the dangers that they face, staying in captivity will at least keep them safe for now.
Happily, the TSA’s efforts to help the tortoises were further boosted in late April 2017 thanks to a number of people offering their assistance. “Six local volunteers from different institutions joined us yesterday at Villages des Tortues,” veterinarian Na Aina Tiana Rakotoarisoa told the TSA website.
“They helped to soak, build shelter houses and distribute water for the tortoises,” Rakotoarisoa added. Despite its stretched resources, then, the TSA still plans to send more teams to Madagascar over the coming weeks and months to help the surviving radiated tortoises. So, while it won’t be a quick fix, the endangered animals are at least in the right hands for now.