7 min read

Rescuers Enter Remote Hut And Can't Believe What They Find

There were THOUSANDS of them 😱

Seven months ago, officials seized an unprecedented group of illegally trafficked radiated tortoises — a whopping 11,000 of these animals, who are critically endangered, had been captured from the forest and hidden inside a home in Toliara, Madagascar. If help hadn’t arrived, the tortoises would have been shipped to Asia and sold as pets.

Everyone hoped this wouldn’t happen again — but sadly, it was just a matter of time before it did.

Tortoises in open-air enclosure
TSA

In late October, officials received a tip-off that another group of radiated tortoises — 7,347 of them this time — was being kept in an open-air enclosure in southern Madagascar, about 40 miles away from Toliara.

“We always knew that it wasn’t a matter of if, but a matter of when the next confiscation was going to take place,” Jordan Gray, communications coordinator at Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), the group that helped rescue the tortoises, told The Dodo. “But at the same time, we didn’t expect another one of this magnitude to happen this quickly.”

Tortoises under enclosure
TSA

The radiated tortoise is named for their high-domed shell decorated with a star pattern. Unfortunately, their unique appearance makes these tortoises highly desirable to pet owners around the world.

To supply the global demand for radiated tortoises, wildlife smugglers will go into the forest in southern Madagascar and steal as many as possible until they have a large quantity to sell.

Confiscated tortoises inside open-air enclosure
TSA

“There were actually crates on hand to be able to pack the tortoises up,” Gray said. “Eventually, they most likely would have been taken to the coast and put on a boat and basically, as I call it, disappear into the night for the international black market trade for these species. But luckily that didn’t happen.”

TSA immediately sent out vets and caretakers to move the tortoises to safe locations and tend to their medical needs.

Rescuer with tortoises
TSA

“The good thing is that, unlike the confiscation in April, these tortoises were kept outside,” Gray said. “They were still kept in close confines to one another, packed like sardines in these pens ... but at least they were outside, so they did have access to fresh air.”

Even so, this wasn’t enough to save some of the tortoises — by the time help arrived, over 100 animals had died due to the lack of food, water and sanitary conditions. The others, however, seem to be in relatively good condition, Gray said.

Rescuer with thousands of tortoises
TSA

“The biggest challenge this now creates is that ... we have over 23,000 radiated tortoises under our care, just in Madagascar,” Gray said. “That places a significant financial burden on our organization as an NGO [non-governmental organization].”

Despite the challenges, the TSA team is working hard to rehabilitate the tortoises and to hopefully get them back to the wild. However, Gray explained that this won’t be a straightforward process.

Rescuer holding radiated tortoise
TSA

“Right now, poaching is rampant, so we cannot rightfully return these animals in the near future to the wild,” Jordan said. “It's just too dangerous. So we will continue to manage them until an appropriate solution is crafted and agreed upon.”

While this new group of rescued tortoises is now safe, the TSA team is worried about the future of these rare animals.

Rescuers moving tortoises
Rescuers moving the tortoises to a safe location | TSA

“When you see the trajectory of the radiated tortoise decline over the last 30 years, you realize you are seeing the American bison story in another country, for another species,” Gray said. “A population that once was estimated in the tens of millions, now feared to go functionally extinct in the wild in the next 20 years.”

At the same time, the TSA team is remaining optimistic.

Rescued tortoises inside bucket
TSA

“We never lose hope,” Gray said. “It's not ‘in our blood’ to lose hope. You just keep pushing forward and do the best that you can, and hope the differences you are making impacts how others view these animals.”

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