Shortly after arriving in the small town of Beloha, word of our arrival spread quickly. Not many vazas, a Malagasy term for light-skinned foreigners, come to this area of Madagascar, especially ones studying tortoises. We definitely drew some curious stares, and in a manner of minutes we had offers to see tortoises.
Although there was a light rain and the week’s first cold Coca-cola was beckoning, I decided to accept the offer to see some tortoises. Sadly, the locals took me to the town’s trash dump to show me the remains of at least a dozen recently butchered radiated tortoises Astrochelys radiata. I had thought that perhaps I would see some pet tortoises or maybe a few juvenile animals for sale, but to see the adult carapaces of one of the world’s most strikingly beautiful tortoises mixed with the town’s refuge of broken baskets, old flip flops, and tattered clothing was a stark dichotomy of splendor and repulsion. Minutes later my first cold Coca-cola after a week of hot and dirty fieldwork didn’t taste so refreshing after all.
Poverty in the Spiny Forest of Southwest Madagascar is at a level that many westerners would have a hard time grasping. As the American Southwest faces its housing crisis related to failing mortgages, accelerated inflation of the price per gallon of gasoline, and spiraling healthcare costs; the people of Spiny Forest are spending a quarter of their daily wage on a two-gallon bucket of fresh water and may spend months eating only the fruits from the invasive prickly-pear cactus. The walls of their houses are built of the split stalk of an invasive agave plant (introduced as a source of fiber for rope making), and the roofs are made from its dried leaves. The only chance for a bath is when the roadside ditches fill with water once ever six months. Yet even in the face of this incredible poverty, most do not eat the area’s tortoises, as people of the Mahafaly tribe (the dominant tribe in the area) have a long-held belief that the tortoises are fady or taboo. Sadly, outsiders from a different tribe are now coming to the area to collect the tortoises for sale in major cities and to meet the demand for bushmeat fueled by international mining operations in southern Madagascar.
Once estimated to have populations in the millions, the Spiny Forest’s radiated tortoise is now absent from many of the areas where it was once incredibly common as recently as the mid-1990s. Even the national parks are not immune from poaching. One of the best remaining populations of the tortoise is in the Cap Sainte Marie National Park. However, this park is only 17 square kilometers (6.5 square miles) and has a handful of park guards that have no means of making daily patrols to deter poaching. The guards have not a single automobile or all-terrain vehicle; rather, they may occasionally hitch a ride on an oxcart. The only real protection the park has is that it is isolated and difficult to reach. This protection is fleeting, as once the population of tortoises outside the park is diminished, the poachers will eventually make their way to the park’s gates.
This is the situation that I, along with a team of international biologists from the Turtle Survival Alliance and the Wildlife Conservation Society, am tasked with. Somehow we must create new and innovative solutions for this tangled net of a conservation problem. We have to find ways to aid in the socioeconomic development of the region that will make the lives of the region’s people better and will also safeguard its tortoise populations; and, we have to do this while the nation is experiencing a transitional government!
The situation is not hopeless, but will require dedicated Malagasies ready to devote years to this dilemma. There are no easy answers. Law enforcement will not gain traction unless we have the support from the people living and working daily in the tortoise habitat.
We hope to initiate programs that will reduce the need for conversion of the remaining intact forest to agricultural areas and pastures for cattle. This indirect conservation action of reducing slash-and-burn farming practices will help slow the destruction of Madagascar’s most endangered landscape as well as build bridges to the communities that can best protect the tortoises. Simple yet eloquent programs of implementing fuel-efficient cooking stoves will help stem the wave of destruction of the forests related to charcoal production. Aiding in the construction of rainwater harvesting techniques will afford people the opportunity to water their crops in periods of drought. This multi-pronged approach will prevent the loss of core tortoise habitat as well as increase vigilance at the community level.
Policy level change at the highest levels of government must also be enacted so that park guards will have legal right to detain tortoise poachers. Perhaps a special task force that is well equipped to deal with armed poachers should be considered. Community-level actions are a great first defense, but rural farmers do not have the means to halt poachers armed with rifles nor can their oxcarts match the mobility of the poachers’ four-wheel drive trucks.
We have a difficult task ahead of us as we continue to dedicate ourselves to zero turtle extinctions. The radiated tortoise is an icon of southern Madagascar and one we must insure remains a keystone species in this incredibly unique ecosystem.