Madagascar and other Islands
The Biological Wealth of an Impoverished Country: Reptiles and Amphibians: Page 2 The Plowshare Tortoises have been reduced to a few forest sites, and in spite of the urgent need for a reserve, none has been set aside. The area is getting conservation help with the formation of a new organization by conservation biologists, the Association to Safeguard the Environment. Its purpose is to involve local people in environmental projects, such as planting cashew trees, learning fire suppression methods, and trapping bush pigs; they are also giving conservation lessons to children and conducting literacy classes (Durbin et al. 1996).
The Radiated Tortoise (Geochelone radiata) inhabits the drylands of the extreme south, where the strange Didierea plants and other desert vegetation grow in open shrubland. Many people consider this tortoise to be the most beautiful in the world. Delicate yellow sunburst patterns adorn the top of its 16-inch-long black shell, and the underside is marked with diamond patterns. These tortoises also declined after tens of thousands were killed to supply local villagers with meat, or exported to the Comoro Islands from the 17th century on for meat markets abroad. In 1922 alone, 22,000 of these tortoises were exported (Jolly 1980). The legal trade did not cease until 1930. The tortoise populations have not rebounded, and illegal capture for collectors and zoos may be the explanation. The slow reproduction of this species means that it cannot quickly make up for losses in its population. An extremely long-lived species, it has evolved with low natural mortality and has few young. As an example of its longevity, a Radiated Tortoise of unknown age presented to the Queen of Tonga by Captain Cook in the 1770s, lived until 1966, making it almost 190 years old at its death (Jackson 1993).
The lovely patterns on this tortoise's shell, which vary from individual to individual, have placed it in great demand around the world, encouraging poverty-stricken Malagasy to risk jail to earn the money that these tortoises bring. Thousands of Radiated Tortoises have been collected for the international market, sold in Europe, North America and elsewhere for $2,000 or more per animal. In spite of having a range that is far larger than that of the Plowshare Tortoise, the Radiated Tortoise is declining rapidly toward extinction. The species is listed by the 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Vulnerable. Export and collection of Radiated Tortoises are prohibited by the Malagasy government, with severe penalties for violations including prison sentences. The United States lists both the Radiated and Plowshare Tortoises on the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits commercial importation. International commercial trade is banned by their listing on Appendix I of CITES. Still, the smuggling continues, fed by the many wealthy collectors who have no conscience about the effect their purchase has on wild populations, and the zoos that knowingly purchase smuggled animals. Malagasy authorities have failed to put an end to the poaching, especially of the Radiated Tortoise and other southern species.
Donovan Webster, a journalist, researched the rampant smuggling of Radiated Tortoises and other wildlife from the island for The New York Times Magazine, which published his lengthy article on February 16, 1997. The magazine cover featured the article and read: "I was caught in Madagascar. Peddled for 30 cents. Smuggled to Orlando. Sold for $10,000. I'm a rare, coveted tortoise--coldblooded contraband." Webster found that Madagascar was a "pirate's paradise," with little or no local enforcement of conservation laws. Its long and unpatrolled coastline is used by smugglers, who load tortoises onto small boats at night, with little fear of arrest (Webster 1997). Although some enforcement of capture bans takes place in the range of the Radiated Tortoise, local people have learned to avoid arrest.
The contrast between the attitudes of local people toward the Plowshare Tortoise in the north, where education programs have been carried out by the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, and the south, where no strong program exists to protect the Radiated Tortoise and other wildlife, could not be more dramatic. In the south, poaching Radiated Tortoises and other reptiles is considered an accepted form of revenue by the extremely poor people of the region. At local bars and restaurants, Webster was approached by people who offered to produce a rare snake within 24 hours. Snakes are a favorite animal for smugglers because they can be secreted in small bags and placed in luggage or, if they are small enough, in pockets. He refused a boa, which was offered at $300 and could be sold for $2,000 in the United States (Webster 1997).
Webster exposed a large-scale and fairly open trade in Radiated Tortoises in local markets within the range of these tortoises. He visited a woman who was reputed to have many of these tortoises for sale. She showed him 24 Radiated Tortoises which she kept ready for sale to anyone who would pay the right price; they were crowded into a make-shift pen in her living room, stacked two and three deep in filthy conditions (Webster 1997). They grunted and made hissing sounds when disturbed, scratching and scrabbling against one another and the pen sides; their shells were covered with dust, and most appeared to be sickly (Webster 1997). The woman tossed the tortoises back into the pile after handling them. She claimed that she sold them to local people for $1.35, and to outsiders for $4 or more, depending on how many tortoises she had at the time (Webster 1997). She also admitted supplying a smuggler who arrived once a week in a canoe at a remote beach with any Radiated Tortoises she had in stock (Webster 1997).
These tortoises are absurdly easy to collect in the wild, living in open shrubland and moving so slowly that they can be picked up as easily as rocks. Webster witnessed the capture of one mature tortoise which Benjamin, one of the collectors, located in the shadow of a boulder. When he approached, the tortoise hissed and tried to crawl beneath bushes, but it was easily grabbed, and he flipped it on its back; soon he caught two other adult tortoises who had a baby the size of a small stone wedged beneath them in an apparent attempt to protect it (Webster 1997). Collectors wrap string around the tortoises’ shells to form handles for carrying them. When they met at the end of the day, they had taken 54 mature tortoises and many young ones, making it a "banner day" (Webster 1997). The occasional presence of enforcement officers and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) representatives did not seem to present any anxiety of threat of arrest to the collectors (Webster 1997).
Each Radiated Tortoise is worth at least $2,000 once smuggled out of Madagascar, and those with unusually exquisite patterns bring as much as $10,000 (Webster 1997). Benjamin later admitted that he was aware that the tortoises were becoming rarer and that their range had shrunk in recent years; he also knew that many were very old, probably older than his own 53 years. It was obvious that the tortoises would soon be gone, but he believed this was his only potential income source; he was uncertain about how he would make a living when there were no more Radiated Tortoises (Webster 1997).
Some of the smuggled Radiated Tortoises leaving Madagascar have been seized by importing countries. In May 1992, for example, a Dutch citizen arriving from Madagascar was stopped by Customs at Roissy Airport in the Netherlands in possession of 46 Radiated Tortoises as well as 14 bamboo lemurs of several species and seven endangered Madagascar Boas (Acrantophis madagascariensis); the animals were confiscated and returned to Madagascar (TRAFFIC 1992). In 1998, a Radiated Tortoise was among many rare tortoises seized in Belgium as they were being imported, and U.S. authorities, under “Operation Chameleon,” an undercover investigation of trafficking in illegal Madagascar reptiles, seized Radiated Tortoises from an American reptile dealer in Miami. In May 1999, French Customs officers seized 450 tortoises smuggled by three Malagasy citizens living in Paris (TRAFFIC 1999b). Among them were 120 Radiated Tortoises; the suspects were not arrested (TRAFFIC 1999b).
Most ecotourism on the island has been developed for viewing lemurs, chameleons and birds, but the Radiated Tortoise and its extraordinary habitat of endemic plants have the potential of attracting many tourists. Also living in this tortoise's habitat are spectacular sifakas, many unusual birds, and other reptiles. In Beza-Mahafaly Reserve, scientists are studying the ecology and longevity of these tortoises, as well as searching for a permanent form of marking that would make them unattractive to collectors. The Radiated Tortoise could be conserved while helping local people like Benjamin. Grants from international organizations could finance jobs held by local people, such as ex-poachers, to protect the tortoises and serve as wardens. Former collectors could help educate schoolchildren and local people about protecting Radiated Tortoises and other wildlife. Organizations, such as Earthwatch Institute, might sponsor research to study the status of these tortoises. The presence of scientists would pose a deterrent to poachers.
Two other endemic tortoises, the Spider Tortoise (Pyxis archnoides) and the highly endangered Flat‑shelled Tortoise (Pyxis planicauda), are much smaller, about 5 or 6 inches long (Preston‑Mafham 1991). The latter tortoise is restricted to a forest of only 40 square miles, and a captive‑breeding program is attempting to prevent its extinction. Both these tortoises lay only a single, large egg (Preston‑Mafham 1991). These tortoises are also in demand by reptile collectors. In August 1996, six men were indicted after being arrested with four Spider Tortoises in their luggage at the Orlando International Airport in Florida. They were part of a smuggling ring supplying rare reptiles to collectors. In 1999, 330 Spider Tortoises were seized along with Radiated Tortoises in the case cited above (TRAFFIC 1999b).
The Madagascar Big-headed Turtle (Erymnochelys madagascariensis), is an endangered freshwater species listed in the 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and on Appendix II of CITES. This turtle is related to South American river turtles, another link that may date back to the time before Madagascar drifted away from Gondwana. The Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust began a breeding program for these turtles in 1999 with the objective of releasing young turtles back into the wild after educating local people.