8 min read

No One Could Believe What They Found Hidden Inside This House

“The entire house was filled. Every room was covered."

The outside of the white house looked fairly ordinary — but the inside held a sad, shocking secret. After receiving a tip-off, police broke into a home in Toliara, Madagascar, on Tuesday night, and found 11,000 critically endangered radiated tortoises trapped inside.

“The entire house was filled,” Rick Hudson, president and CEO of Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), told The Dodo. “Every room was covered with tortoises. This is the largest confiscation that we’ve ever dealt with with any kind of turtle. It’s just of monumental proportions.”

Radiated tortoises filling room in Madagascar
Radiated tortoises filled every room of the Toliara house | TSA

The radiated tortoise is an unusual-looking animal with a high-domed shell decorated with a star pattern. Unfortunately, their unique appearance has made them highly desirable to pet owners around the world — wildlife smugglers continually steal these tortoises from southern Madagascar and ship them to Asian countries to be sold as pets.

Hudson believes the 11,000 tortoises found in the house were also destined for the pet trade.

At the moment, no one knows how long the tortoises were kept inside the house, but they weren’t being properly cared for. Sadly, about 300 tortoises have already died from neglect.

House in Toliara, Madagascar
The house in Toliara, Madagascar, that imprisoned 11,000 tortoises | TSA

“We saw no evidence of food or water,” Hudson said. “Typically they [wildlife traffickers] don’t seem to think that tortoises have any biological needs. They just keep them until they’re ready to ship them.”

Rescuers transported the tortoises to a nearby tortoise sanctuary, although the sanctuary is struggling to care for so many new arrivals in addition to its current residents. TSA sent a group of vets to assist, but caring for such a large group of tortoises will still be a challenge.

“Dehydration is our worst enemy in these situations,” Hudson said. “We have to go in with plastic tubs and things to put the tortoises in. We’re hoping that they just need a good soak and rehydration will perk them up.”

Endangered tortoises covering a room in a Madagascar house
Another room filled with tortoises in the Toliara house | TSA

The rescue team will work hard to help the surviving tortoises, who will hopefully be released back into the wild — but wildlife trafficking is having a huge and detrimental effect on the radiated tortoise. While it’s difficult to gauge how many radiated tortoises are left in the wild, Hudson explained that populations are plummeting at an alarming rate.

“This used to be one of the most numerous tortoises in the world, estimated at 12 million, and now we’re just watching this rapid decline,” Hudson said. “If you think about the American bison or the passenger pigeon, this is an analogous situation.”

Radiated tortoises inside truck
Some of the 11,000 rescued tortoises being driven to the sanctuary | TSA

“We’re looking at a species we thought we’d never lose because they were so numerous … but now they’re undergoing this catastrophic decline,” Hudson added. “We keep asking ourselves, ‘With all of these tortoises being confiscated, where is the end?’”

The pet trade is the biggest threat to the radiated tortoise, but bushmeat is another — people are also killing these tortoises and eating their meat, Hudson explained.

“We’re finding evidence of poaching camps,” Hudson said. “People will find remnants of 3,000 tortoises from a poaching camp where they’ve killed the tortoises for the meat.”

Radiated tortoises standing together
Other radiated tortoises rescued from the pet trade in Thailand | Facebook/WFFT

Richard Thomas, global communications coordinator for TRAFFIC, an international wildlife monitoring network, is also concerned for the future of the radiated tortoise.

“The scale of the seizure clearly illustrates the potentially devastating impact harvesting of protected species can have on populations,” Thomas told The Dodo. “In some parts of its range, as few as 27 radiated tortoises occur in every square kilometre of suitable habitat: that means as much as 400 square kilometres could have been completely cleaned out of the animals [with this recent seizure].”

“People native to the radiated tortoise areas have a taboo against harvesting them: so who was behind their collection and where were they destined — for domestic consumption of overseas markets?” Thomas asked. “If the latter, where, and who was orchestrating their transport and onward distribution?”

Man caring for rescued tortoises
A TSA team member caring for a different group of rescued tortoises in Madagascar | Facebook/TSA

At the moment, many questions remain unanswered, but Hudson hopes they’ll have answers soon. Local police have taken three men into custody in connection with the capture of these 11,000 tortoises.

The upside of this whole situation is that local authorities in Madagascar have disrupted a major poaching ring, Hudson explained. That said, he believes that a lot more work is needed to protect these animals.

“We need to get the word out, we need to ramp up international outrage, and put pressure on local authorities to keep doing their job,” Hudson said.

To help these tortoises recover and get back into the wild, you can make a much-needed donation to TSA.