Wednesday, 18 September 2019

THE RISE OF THE TORTOISE MAFIA (Madagascar) - via Herp Digest

by  AARON GEKOSKI
National Geographic Traveler

‘Tortoises make people smile,’ Dr Christina Castellano explains. Christina, a member of US conservation group The Orianne Society, is a self-confessed tortoise nut who has been studying them for the last 15 years. She’s hit the nail on the head: tortoises take us to a happy place. Perhaps it’s their unhurried and simple way of life – they graze, they sleep, they fornicate. Very. Slowly. 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 in 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 50% in the past 10 years alone. 

Several complex factors are contributing to this demise. Years of extreme drought have sucked the moisture from these once lush plains. Madagascar’s remaining forests are being systematically cleared for the charcoal and rice industries, and for cattle pasturage. It is estimated that less than 10% of its original forest, the tortoise’s natural habitat, remains. And although protected under Malagasy law, tortoise 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; 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,’ Herilala Randriamahazo of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) in Madagascar told me. Herilala proceeded to explain how armed poachers are invading villages and wiping out tortoises. One recent battle left a poacher, and the village king’s son, dead.

 Given that most Malagasy live on less than R16 a day, the monies involved are astronomical. A large ploughshare tortoise can fetch up to R300 000 on the black market. This demand has reduced their numbers to less than 600, rendering them the world’s rarest tortoise.

Madagascar is made up of 18 tribes – some eat tortoises, some don’t. To the latter, consuming tortoises is a fady (taboo) that has protected tortoises for centuries. Recent years, however, have seen an increase of tortoise eaters. ‘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,’ says Christina. In the village of Tsiombe, a hot spot for tortoise consumption, the head of the local police force claims to be fighting a losing battle and tortoise shells litter a dump just metres from his office. Enforcing the law remains a major challenge here: what he requires is funding for a vehicle to pursue the poachers.

Incentivising locals to save tortoises is another solution the TSA is exploring. In recognition of one village’s 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. Unless people change their behaviour soon, these animals will go the way of Madagascar’s giant lemur and elephant bird.

It may not be too late for Madagascar’s tortoises. A desire exists to turn the situation around and populations of certain species of tortoise are still healthy enough for us save them. Just. 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.

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