On April 10, 2018, local police discovered more than 10,000 radiated tortoises (Astrochelys radiata) crammed in a private residence in Madagascar.

The radiated tortoise is an endangered species found only in Madagascar that is often sold illegally on the international pet trade.

Without access to food or water, many of the turtles were sick or injured. The Turtle Survival Alliance sprang into action with a call to help save this species. The New England Aquarium’s director of animal health, Charles J. Innis VMD DABVP, is one of many turtle experts who answered the call to help in this massive rescue mission. Here is Part II of his experience (in case you missed it, read Part I here).
Radiated tortoises in pen
Radiated tortoises in tub between treatments
Current Rescue Efforts

The veterinary teams that have been here before me (for the past six weeks) have borne the majority of labor and deaths. Their incredible work has resulted in a turtle survival rate of approximately 90 percent. Several thousand of the healthiest tortoises have been relocated from the temporary holding center to a long-term housing center. There is hope to eventually release these animals back to the wild, but the logistics for such are challenging, with complicated considerations for the likelihood of future poaching events, genetic mixing, concern for disease translocation, etc. Keeping them captive forever is also unlikely and undesirable.

A Day at the Rescue Facility

We’re a little below the equator, so it’s winter. The days are fairly short with about 11 hours of sunshine, and it is dark about 5:30 p.m. The sun stays rather low in the sky, but it’s warm, with temperatures in the 80s during the day and 60s at night.

Front of clinic where turtles being treated

Today, we examined about 550 animals, clearing 500 for the next transport. Approximately 4,000 animals still remain in the temporary center. They are mostly small juveniles, likely 5 to 10 years old, and are receiving ongoing veterinary care with plans to transfer them to the long-term facility in the coming weeks. The daily veterinary chores include examination and treatment of several dozen of the sickest individuals (the “ICU” patients); reassessment of more stable, but still sick individuals (the “hospital” patients); and examinations of the stronger individuals to clear them for transport to the long-term center. After the turnles’ medical treatments, we let them sit in shallow water and sunlight for hours during the day. They often drink on their own, and the sun warms them, helping their immune response, digestive function, etc. We provide shade and move them, as needed, as the sun moves, to avoid overheating. Then necropsies for the dead animals are performed before the end of the day; finally, the hospital is cleaned to end the day.

The tools that we use daily at home on Central Wharf are simply not available: no X-rays, no bacterial cultures. Today, I examined a large, old, adult female radiated tortoise. Her hind legs are not very functional, which could be due to a number of reasons. If she were our patient in Boston, she would get a CT scan. Here, I can just make a thorough mental list of the possible diagnoses and then crudely start basic treatment with just an injectable NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug like ibuprofen) that we sent over a few weeks ago. Refusing to believe that microbiology tests were not available here, one of our team today visited a human hospital in Toliara to ask if they have capability for bacterial cultures. It seems not.

A Herculean Effort by Many

I am fortunate to be here with three colleagues from the Shedd Aquarium, Zoo Knoxville, Indianapolis Zoo, and one private individual. The level of support from the international zoo and aquarium community as well as private citizens has been immense. In the weeks before my arrival, colleagues from the San Diego Zoo, Louisiana State University, Dallas Zoo, and Wildlife Conservation Society have been here—and I apologize for others that I am missing.

group of rescuers in Madagascar
From left, Avimasy (TSA Madagascar), Dr. Ed Ramsay (Zoo Knoxville and University of Tennessee School of Vet Med), Susan Faso (private), Andrew Ahl (Indianapolis Zoo), Rachel Parchem (Shedd Aquarium), Vonintsoa (SOPTOM), me, and Dr. Ny Aina (TSA Madagascar)

Behind all of this, the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), SOPTOM (France), Durrell Wildlife Trust (UK), and the Turtle Conservancy have been on the ground here for years, employing the local people and trying to build momentum and capacity for conservation programs. The TSA’s young, Madagascan veterinarian Ny Aina is faced with the task of managing the veterinary program here.

A Bittersweet Dream

The radiated tortoise was something mythical to me when I was growing up. There were a few black-and-white photos in some of the turtle books of the 1960s and ’70s and then a few color photos in the ’80s. It was from far away, incredibly beautiful, rare, and I would never see one. When I became a big kid and worked with some major private and zoological keepers of the species, I thanked the universe for having seen (and examined and treated) a radiated tortoise.

Sometimes I dream about turning over piles of leaves or reaching under a riverbank to find dozens of box turtles or wood turtles. Today, I lived a version of the dream, sitting in the sand in Madagascar, turning over piles of brush, and underneath were 10, 20, or 40 radiated tortoises. Incredible to see, but incredibly sad to consider the reason why I am seeing them.

I can see why some people think this work is silly. The people in Madagascar have very little—almost nothing by U.S. standards. It is easy to question the rationale for the carbon footprint and cost of our travel. We are also generating medical waste. These things do not slip past our consideration. Caring for sick tortoises may seem like a waste of resources, but they deserve some effort too, and my profession has given me some skills, so “fiddle I must.”

— Charlie Innis

Keep reading! Read Part III of Charlie’s blog from Madagascar to learn more about the day-to-day efforts of the international team of experts he’s part of, which is working to save this endangered species in Madagascar.