Beyond the Aquarium
Part IV: Transporting and Treating
Tortoises in Madagascar
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.
We scrambled to ready 600 tortoises for transport, giving each of them a shallow bath to hydrate them for the long ride—they often drink a lot of water during their baths (and urinate and defecate!). Then several trucks arrived around 4 p.m., each holding a large wooden crate in the back, and a large wooden crate on the roof. Each crate has removable wooden slats such that several layers of animals could be packed.
On the bottom of each layer, we packed leafy vines to provide cushioning, then placed around 40 to 60 tortoises within, added the level 1 slats, then repeated for the subsequent layers. Eventually, we had two trucks containing around 300 tortoises each. The engine of the second truck wouldn’t start, but no one seemed very concerned. After strapping Truck 2 to Truck 1 for a tow, and getting it rolling for a hundred feet, the engine started, and the tortoises were driven away. And then we were back to work washing the 40 or 50 dirty bathtubs in which 600 tortoises had been relieving themselves.
Another transport occurred this morning. So in the last 18 hours we’ve sent away approximately 1,400 animals, leaving us with only about 2,600 of the original 10,000 still here at the temporary holding center. We decided to take today, Sunday, as an early day.
During my time here in Madagascar, we moved about half of the remaining animals to the Turtle Survival Alliance long-term holding center. The remaining tortoises at clinic are 95 percent ready to go as soon as transportation is arranged. About 75 animals still need frequent medical care, and only six deaths occurred since I’ve been here. It rained the last two days, which is unusual, but creates some beauty and makes the tortoises’ colors even more vibrant.
There will be ongoing need for veterinary and animal care as long as these thousands of tortoises remain captive. But that work can’t be done forever by visitors like me. I asked today why very few local people are here to learn from us and why they are not trying to publicize the transports as a good-news story with hope of educating the people about tortoise conservation. In the U.S., we often say that we need to educate the local people and build capacity so they can deal with future events themselves. But it seems the authorities here are afraid that poachers and illegal animal traders would use such information to steal the animals back.
I’ll be home soon. I am looking forward to getting back to other work at the Aquarium and having some traditional summer fun with family and friends, a hot shower, and a pizza.
— Charles Innis