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The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and Utah's Hogle Zoo (HZ) conducted their latest field expedition in March 2013 as part of the Madagascar Tortoise Conservation Project. The goals of the expedition were to:
• Conduct an assessment of last year's public awareness campaign using survey questionnaires and focus groups;
• Distribute new campaign materials and education workbooks;
• Identify tortoise release sites to be incorporated into the reintroduction program;
• Develop a research methodology to evaluate release strategies;
• Discuss the creation of temporary holding pens to facilitate confiscations with community leaders;
• Conduct follow-up meetings with the World Bank (WB) and Madagascar National Parks (MNP) to determine status of WB funding of project; and
• Develop an eco-tour to bring social and economic benefits to the communities associated with the reintroduction program.
This year our field crew included me (Christina Castellano, HZ), Riana Rakotondrainy (HZ), Saaya Tema (RAW Africa), Ryan Walker (TSA), Andrea Currylow (Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership (MBP)), Sylvain Mahazotahy (TSA), and Soary Randrianjafizanaka (TSA). Herilala Randriamahazo (TSA) was unable to join us in the field, but organized meetings and continued to facilitate the program from Antananarivo (Tana).
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2012 was the busiest and best in the history of the Turtle Survival Alliance. Here are just a few of the accomplishments that we're so grateful for as the year draws to a close:
- In Madagascar, the TSA’s grassroots campaign to expose the Radiated Tortoise poaching crisis is beginning to yield positive results throughout the country. Community agreements to strengthen protection for this iconic species have resulted in a dramatic increase in confiscations and arrests in 2012, a sign that the tide may finally be turning. In 2013, the TSA will embark on an ambitious program to build a series of rescue centers throughout the south for rehabilitation and treatment until the tortoises are prepared to return to the wild.
- In December, the TSA will dedicate Burma’s first Turtle Rescue Center. Years of planning and fund-raising have culminated in this facility that promises to save countless turtles and tortoises rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. New assurance colony facilities were also built this year for Burmese Mountain Tortoises and Arakan Forest Turtles.
- The June hatching of 50 Northern River Terrapins in captive facilities in both Bangladesh and India was a stunning achievement, and made global news. This gives new hope for the survival of this critically endangered turtle that is believed to be very near extinction in the wild.
- A recent Save Our Species grant will breathe new life into recovery programs for Asian river terrapins (Genus Batagur) in India, Myanmar, Cambodia and Bangladesh. Captive management is essential to safeguarding these species until efforts to protect and restore nesting habitat are successful, and we are actively building a multi-national model that integrates these strategies.
- The TSA produced two films this year to increase awareness of the extensive poaching problems that threaten chelonians in both Madagascar and Bangladesh, and the brutal slaughter that accompanies the illegal wildlife trade.
- The TSA launched a program in Colombia this year – our first in South America – that will focus on endemic species, most notably the critically endangered Magdalena River Turtle. By expanding a successful community-based program of nest protection, hatching, headstarting and release, these grassroots efforts will have a greater impact on the species’ recovery in the wild.
- In India, the TSA is poised to assume management of the Kukrail Gharial Conservation Center in Lucknow where we will build assurance colonies of most of northern India’s threatened chelonians. The Center will become the home base of operations for TSA India, and provide a facility where the increasing number of confiscated turtles can be rehabilitated.
- Launching the Turtle Survival Center in South Carolina in 2013 is guaranteed to prove transformational for the TSA and will propel us into a new era. Building assurance colonies for some of the world’s rarest species – many of which will depend on captive management for their survival – will ensure that we maintain our commitment to zero turtle extinctions.
Membership revenue and online sales account for just roughly 8% of our total revenue. The remainder of our income is provided primarily through grants and donations. For that reason, we are reaching out to those of you who support the TSA to ask for your consideration of a year-end gift to help propel us into an even bigger and better 2013.
This gift does not have the benefits associated with membership and is completely tax deductible to the extent allowed by law. It is a gift that comes from the heart by those who understand the needs of chelonians worldwide and appreciate the work being done year-round by the TSA globally. Click here to donate today.
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The group of radiated tortoises that was confiscated at the Ivato Airport (Madagascar) on October 10 is still being cared for by the staff at the office that the TSA shares with the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership in Antaranarivo. The tortoises (569 total) had been packed into just four suitcases when they were found and many have suffered health consequences as a result. In total, 50 have been lost thus far, primarily due to stress, dehydration and immune issues.
However, the good news is that mortality seems to be subsiding at this point as no additional tortoises have been lost in the past week. A local veterinarian, Tsanta Rakotonanahary, has been working closely with Herilala Randriamahazo (TSA Malagasy Tortoise Conservation Coordinator) to treat the group and keep mortality to a minimum. Tsanta has a history with the TSA, as she received special training from the TSA in 2010 (pictured at left). She is actively consulting with Dr. Bonnie Raphael (WCS) and Paul Gibbons (Turtle Conservancy) to take advantage of their expertise in treating tortoises. We appreciate everyone that is contributing their services to this effort.
The tortoises will be under the care of the TSA until they are healthy and are given the green light from the Malagasy Forest Authority for reintroduction. If you would like to contribute to help offset the cost of their care and medical treatment, please visit the TSA donation page.
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The TSA team in Madagascar is still waiting on word from the Malagasy Forestry Authority on the legal proceedings surrounding the recent Radiated Tortoise confiscation. In the meantime, they are stretched to the limit in terms of time and resources, caring for the nearly 600 tortoises at the TSA/Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership (MBP) offices, until they are given approval to reintroduce these animals to the wild. Despite that, Herilala Randriamahazo (TSA Malagasy Tortoise Conservation Coordinator) and his team still found time recently to stage a massive outreach event, using the confiscation (and some of the tortoises!) as a tool to educate the people of Antananarivo on the conservation issues facing the critically endangered Radiated Tortoise.
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On October 10, two Asian passengers on an Air Madagascar flight to Bangkok, Thailand and Guangzhou, China were arrested at Ivato International Airport after attempting to smuggle four suitcases full of 569 Critically Endangered Radiated Tortoises (Astrochelys radiata) through customs. This is a record number seizure for this airport in the capital city of Antananarivo. After the confiscation, the Malagasy Forestry Authority mandated the Turtle Survival Alliance to look after the baby tortoises. Of the group, three were already dead and ten are currently in very poor condition.
This is the second major tortoise confiscation in the past two weeks and is already overwhelming our resources to care for them properly. This underscores the critical need for another regional rescue center in the south where tortoises can be moved immediately following seizure for quarantine, treatment and long-term care prior to their release back into protected areas.
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The head of Androy Region in southern Madagascar has given the order to return 272 juvenile Radiated Tortoises to the town of Tsihombe, a well-known hub of tortoise poaching and consumption in the south. On the night of September 22, two dealers left Tsihombe by taxi-brousse and were later arrested by the Gendarmes in Ampanihy and placed in prison. An additional 38 juvenile tortoises were later released on the road by an unknown dealer in Tsihombe in response to the arrest in Ampanihy; all are being cared by under the supervision of Sylvain Mahazotahy, TSA's "man in the south" in charge of community relations.
As part of the application of the famous Dina "Lilintane I Androy" (Note: a Dina is a contract among communities in the region that is built on a commitment to protect tortoises and generally transcends national law) a serious awareness campaign took place on Thursday September 27, led by the head of the District, who is based in Tsihombe, and the town's Mayor. In front of the public, obviously moved by the arrest of tortoise poachers, they gave for the first time ever a speech to inform people about the Dina and its strict application as well as the incarceration of six poachers involved in the tortoise trafficking. They also vowed to challenge any attempt to alter the justice procedure of this case.
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The TSA, in collaboration with The Orianne Society (TOS), hired noted South Africa-based wildlife film makers Moz Images to cover the rapidly worsening crisis with Madagascar’s Radiated Tortoise. The film crew of Chris Scarfe and Aaron Gekoski accompanied Rick Hudson and Christina Castellano to Madagascar in September 2011 and the resulting short film - Tortoises in Trouble - is being released this week to multiple outlets and can be seen below. The film tracks a group of 140 confiscated Radiated Tortoises from the capital city of Antananarivo to their homeland in the south where they are repatriated to a sacred protected forest near the village of Ampotoka. Along the way, the film exposes ample evidence of massive tortoise consumption, and explores the root causes through interviews with poachers, gendarmes and local judiciary. The film clip is short – only nine minutes – and is meant to draw attention to the crisis internationally and to increase the pressure on the government to respond with stricter penalties and enforcement. However we captured sufficient footage to compile a full length documentary on this story if funding can be identified.
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A special delivery of some of the world’s rarest reptiles has arrived in the Southeastern United States. Eight critically endangered ploughshare tortoises (Astrochelys yniphora), imported by the TSA, are now residents of Zoo Atlanta and Knoxville Zoo. They may represent the last hope for a species marked for extinction.
Widely considered the world’s most endangered tortoise species, ploughshare tortoises are native only to Madagascar. Despite a concentrated recovery program begun in 1986 by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the population continues to founder due to the combined effects of illegal commerce and habitat destruction. Ongoing demand on a global black market, where ploughshare tortoises are often sold to collectors at higher than the price of gold, may have reduced their numbers to as few as 400 individuals.
In 2008, the Recovery Plan Workshop for the Ploughshare Tortoise suggested the establishment of a captive population outside Madagascar. The founders of that population, a group of 10 tortoises confiscated from illegal traders in Hong Kong and Taipei, were imported to the U.S. by the Turtle Conservancy/Behler Chelonian Center.
Now, a second group of eight ploughshare tortoises have recently been imported to the U.S. by the Turtle Survival Alliance. The tortoises arrived thanks to the cooperation of the TSA’s strategic partner Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden as well as the Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department that initially confiscated the ploughshares entering Hong Kong illegally. The tortoises will be housed at Zoo Atlanta and Knoxville Zoo, with oversight from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP), which manages the breeding and placement of the species in zoos accredited by the AZA.
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From all over the Androy Region of southern Madagascar, they came: politicians, local officials, teachers, and of course the children - over 1000 of them. All wanted to be there to participate in the dedication ceremony for the region’s newest primary school, recently constructed with support from the Turtle Survival Alliance. What began with a simple idea in March 2010 - “how can we reward the village of Antsakoamasy for doing such an incredible job of protecting their tortoise population?” - has produced a new school and transformed this sleepy little village on the outskirts of the Cap St Marie Special Reserve into a model for community involvement in tortoise conservation.
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In response to the growing number of tortoise confiscations in Madagascar, and a lack of trained tortoise-care personnel and dedicated facilities, the TSA recently conducted two husbandry training workshops aimed at improving care and survival. Often, these confiscations end poorly for the tortoises involved, and we continue to see appalling levels of mortality due to improper care and inadequate holding facilities. Radiated Tortoises are increasingly becoming refugees in their own country, and with populations crashing rapidly, there is an overwhelming need to ensure that as many of these creatures as possible survive.