Saving Madagascar’s endangered tortoises during a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is not only affecting humans. A nonprofit organization that cares for tortoises seized from wildlife traffickers in Madagascar has struggled to care for the endangered reptiles after the closure of zoos and aquariums that normally support the group.

The funding shortfall would have forced the Turtle Survival Alliance to prematurely release thousands of critically endangered tortoises into the wild.

However, the U.S. government, through the U.S. Agency for International Development, is providing $150,000 to support the organization and protect these unique reptiles. The alliance cares for 24,000 tortoises in Madagascar, including four endangered species. With proper care, the tortoises’ survival rate is 95 percent.

“The Turtle Survival Alliance provides a vital service to the protection of Madagascar’s endemic tortoises,” USAID Mission Director John Dunlop said December 1. “With this grant, we are supporting the Turtle Survival Alliance to collect tortoises recovered from wildlife traffickers, bring them to rehabilitation centers, restore them to health, prepare them for reintroduction to the wild, and ultimately release them at carefully selected, secure locations.”

Large plastic containers holding radiated tortoises (© Turtle Survival Alliance)
These young radiated tortoises, a critically endangered species, were seized from poachers in April 2018. (© Turtle Survival Alliance)

The grant is part of the U.S. government’s broader efforts to stop wildlife trafficking and the illegal trade of natural resources. USAID fights wildlife trafficking in Madagascar through two projects valued at a total of $45 million. The USAID Hay Tao project works with the Madagascar government and others to strengthen environmental policies, including rules against trafficking.

The USAID Mikajy project helps local communities in western and northeastern Madagascar better manage natural resources and address wildlife trafficking and illegal logging.

Conservationists rescued more than 10,000 tortoises in 2018 after authorities raided a house in southern Madagascar. Poachers planned to sell the critically endangered animals to illegal food and pet traders in Asia, according to the Turtle Survival Alliance.

Woman in face mask and scrubs holding tortoise (© Turtle Survival Alliance)
Dr. Ny Aina Tiana Rakotarisoa examines a confiscated ploughshare tortoise at a clinic in Antananarivo, Madagascar. (© Turtle Survival Alliance)

Madagascar’s unique tortoise species are a major draw for the country’s ecotourism sector, which is critical to the country’s economy. The alliance trains local residents in conservation, including how to cultivate food for the tortoises.

“We have what we consider a sacred obligation to care for these animals and have invested too much in their rescue and rehabilitation to release them without proper planning and acclimation,” TSA Madagascar’s national coordinator, Dr. Herilala Randriamahazo, said. “This new partnership allows TSA to continue to honor its commitment to conserving Madagascar’s unique natural resources.”

The U.S. government supports the protection of Malagasy natural resources from exploitation through USAID-funded activities. Since 2013 USAID has committed $53 million toward programs that combat wildlife and precious hardwood trafficking, strengthen natural resource governance, improve forest and marine area management, and increase economic opportunities for people living near protected areas. In 2019, USAID provided $114 million in aid to Madagascar, including $62 million for health care and $40 million for food security.