Turtle Survival Alliance Leads Rescue Mission to Save 10,976 Critically Endangered Radiated Tortoises Discovered in Massive Poaching Bust

Animal Experts from San Diego Zoo Global and Other Zoos Dispatched to Madagascar to Conduct the Rescue

On Tuesday, April 10, more than 10,000 critically endangered radiated tortoises (Astrochelys radiata) were discovered by local police in a non-descript private residence in Toliara, Madagascar. The floors of virtually every room in the house were covered with tortoises that had no access to food or water. As of Friday, April 13, hundreds had died from dehydration and illness. Experts from San Diego Zoo Global are being dispatched with medical supplies and will administer medical care for the sick or injured tortoises, and general animal care.

It is not known how long the tortoises were in the home or who is responsible, but the local police in partnership with Directeur Regional de l’Environment de ‘Ecologie et des Forets (DREEF), the conservation law enforcement authorities in Madagascar, continue their investigation.  It is believed that the tortoises were collected for the illegal pet trade, possibly for shipment to Asia, where the tortoises’ highly domed shell featuring a brilliant star pattern makes them highly prized. It is estimated that radiated tortoise populations in the wild have declined more than 80 percent in the last 30 years. At this rate of decline, it is estimated that the radiated tortoise could be functionally extinct in the wild in less than two decades.

Currently, triage efforts are being led by a five-member team from the Turtle Survival Alliance’s (TSA) Madagascar staff, who have been working nonstop to relocate the surviving tortoises 18 miles north at SOPTOM-Villages des Tortues, a 17-acre private wildlife facility in Ifaty.  While there, each tortoise will receive initial in-processing, health evaluations, hydration and triage.

“I don’t think the word ‘overwhelming’ comes close to describing what the Turtle Survival Alliance is dealing with here,” said Rick Hudson, president of the Turtle Survival Alliance. “We were already caring for 8,000 tortoises in Madagascar—now that number has more than doubled overnight.”

To assist in this emergency situation, the TSA has led efforts to mobilize conservation organizations around the world to commit staff, donate supplies or donate monetary support.

“Unfortunately we have had a number of situations in recent years where our staff has been called upon to assist animals that have been caught up in wildlife trafficking,” said Kim Lovich, curator of reptiles, San Diego Zoo. “This is an overwhelming situation, where we recognize that every individual we save may make the difference between this species’ long-term survival and its extinction. We have to help.”

Given the scale of the rescue efforts, TSA expects to send additional teams of veterinary experts from the United States to Madagascar over the coming weeks and months. Participating organizations accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) include Abilene Zoo, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Dallas Zoo, Dickerson Park Zoo, Georgia AquariumFort Worth Zoo,New England Aquarium,  Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, San Diego Zoo Global, Shedd Aquarium,  Tennessee Aquarium, Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center, Tulsa Zoo, Utah’s Hogle Zoo, Wildlife Conservation SocietyZoo Knoxville and  Zoo Atlanta. In addition to these AZA-accredited organizations, the TSA’s efforts are being supported by global conservation partnersAktionsgemeinschaft Artenschutz (AGA) e. V., Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust,  ProWildlife v. E., SOPTOM-Village Des Tortues, Tanganyika Wildlife Park and the Turtle & Tortoise Preservation Group, plus a growing number of private donors.

“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,” said Hudson. “Yet, the long-term financial impact to our Madagascar program is potentially crippling.”